The United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (CAFC) issued a decision in a patent infringement suit against Apple (Zeroclick, LLC v. Apple Inc.). The lawsuit, brought by Zeroclick LLC, claims Apple infringed on Zeroclick’s intellectual property with the design of the iOS touchscreen for iPhones.

This lawsuit was first brought by Zeroclick in 2015 where they claimed Apple infringed on their patented technology. The contended patents were U.S. Patent No. 8,549,443 and U.S. Patent No. 7,818,691.

The technology behind the ‘691 and ‘443 patents is described as devices that are “capable of executing software comprising: a touch-sensitive screen configured to detect being touched by a user’s finger without requiring an exertion of pressure on the screen;” it also describes the program it would be running on such a device. This technology was originally designed in part for the medical community, potentially making it easier and faster to diagnose patients.

In 2002, Dr. Nes Irvine, inventor of the ‘691 and ‘443 patents, faxed his idea for these devices to the Director of Software Development of Apple, Avie Tevanian. In the fax, Irvine explained the use of the GUI technology and the benefits of it.  Five years later, Apple released the first iPhone with technology very similar to what was detailed in the faxes Irvine sent.

It should be noted Apple has a blanket intellectual property policy for anyone who sends anything to them.

Apple’s Intellectual Property Policy states:

You agree that: (1) your submissions and their contents will automatically become the property of Apple, without any compensation to you; (2) Apple may use or redistribute the submissions and their contents for any purpose and in any way; (3) there is no obligation for Apple to review the submission; and (4) there is no obligation to keep any submissions confidential.

It is unclear why Irvine sent the fax to Apple, but after not receiving a response from them, Irvine moved forward with procuring patents on his technologies with Zeroclick as the assignee.

In 2015, the case went before District Court Judge Jon Tigar. He ruled that Zeroclick’s patents were too broad with generic terms. He said the patents did not detail how the technology would work in real life. Tigar cited the “means-plus-function” provision of the patent regulations which states, “[a]n element in a claim for a combination may be expressed as a means or step for performing a specified function without the recital of structure, material, or acts in support thereof, and such claim shall be construed to cover the corresponding structure, material, or acts described in the specification and equivalents thereof.”

Apple argued that limitations “must be construed under § 112, ¶ 6” (the “means-plus-function” provision) but did not give evidentiary reasoning for that position. “Accordingly, Apple failed to carry its burden, and the presumption against the application of § 112, ¶6 to the disputed limitations remained unrebutted.”

The District Court concluded that “the term ‘program that can operate the movement of the pointer (0)’ is a means-plus-function term because the claim itself fails to recite any structure whatsoever, let alone ‘sufficiently definite structure.” The Court further stated “[b]ecause the use of the phrase ‘user interface code’ provides the same ‘black box recitation of structure’ as the use of the word ‘module’ did in Williamson, and the claim language provides no additional clarification regarding the structure of the term, the Court concludes that ‘user interface code’ constitutes a means-plus-function term.”

The CAFC handed down its decision on June 1, 2018, finding that the district court “erred by effectively treating ‘program’ and ‘user interface code’ as nonce words and concluding in turn that the claims recited means-plus-function limitations.” The CAFC further stated “the district court made no pertinent finding that compels the conclusion that a conventional graphical user interface program or code is used in common parlance as substitute for ‘means.'”

The CAFC vacated the district court’s judgment and remanded for further proceedings.