New technologies: IP protection for graphical user interfaces

With an estimated three billion people using smartphones and other electronic handheld devices worldwide, the importance of obtaining IP protection for graphical user interfaces (GUIs) is only set to grow. Casper Hemelrijk offers advice on creating an effective protection strategy.

Graphical user interfaces provide an intuitive way for users to navigate and interact with electronic devices, such as smartphones. As well as being innovative, GUIs are designed to be as user friendly and visually appealing. As a result, a number of different IP rights can apply, including designs, trademarks, copyright and patents. 

Design rights can provide part protection

Design rights protect the graphical representation and visual aspects of a product. However, it is not possible to protect a computer program or application as a whole through a design right, as technical functions are not covered by design registrations. That said, design rights can be used to protect dynamic interfaces, as well as individual elements of the GUI, such as buttons, dialogue boxes and icons.

Both registered and unregistered design rights apply in the EU. Since apps are constantly evolving, an unregistered design can be sufficient in some cases. The unregistered Community design (UCD) right affords protection for a period of three years against identical infringements from first disclosure. Registered Community design (RCD) rights offer broader protection and a longer term of coverage. Registrations last for five years and are renewable for up to 25 years. 

To be eligible for RCD registrations, designs must have both novelty and individual character. In other words, there should be no identical GUI already available to the public and the impression produced by the GUI should – in the eyes of an informed user – differ from other existing designs. The latter can be difficult to establish, as many GUIs are based on already familiar interfaces. The design should always be comparable to another specific design: “mosaicking” is not permissible. 

Trademarks provide valuable protection for ‘distinctive’ elements

The main function of a trademark is to enable the public to identify the origin of a product or service. Therefore, trademark protection is possible where a GUI meets certain conditions, namely: it must contain a distinctive character and be sufficiently ‘clear and precise’ to be registrable. 

GUIs containing the required distinctiveness are scarce. Most GUIs will be either too simple or too complex to fulfil the main function of a trademark and, therefore, have no distinctive character. As we have previously written, it is possible to acquire distinctiveness through use; however, that distinctiveness can also be lost, e.g. when updating the application with small changes to the GUI. 

Registered trademarks receive 10 years of protection and can be renewed indefinitely, making them a valuable asset. While trademark registrations are not the best way to protect the GUI as a whole, they could be a great way to protect certain easily identifiable elements that are not likely to change; for example, Facebook’s ‘Like’ button or the Microsoft Windows reboot flag icon. This is even more the case following recent EU trademark reform that has made it easier to protect animated multimedia trademarks

Copyright applies to creative choices

A GUI may be eligible for copyright protection when it qualifies as a ‘work’ in the sense of ordinary copyright law; in other words, it needs to be the original expression of the intellectual creation of the author or, to put it another way, the result of creative choices made by the author. Where a GUI qualifies as a work, it automatically receives copyright protection in the EU for a period of 70 years after the death of the author.

Whether or not a GUI meets these criteria depends on the specific arrangement or configuration of its components. Since the layout and menus of applications are often standard, it can be a challenge to establish the requisite originality. In addition, any GUI components that are solely determined by a technical function will not meet the criterion, as no creative choices have been made by the author. These kinds of functions need to be protected by patents instead. 

Patents protect the ‘technical’ solution

Patent protection is available for inventions that bring a new technical solution to a technical problem, but do not protect aesthetic creations or the presentation of information. As such, patent protection will be unavailable for most GUIs, unless they include elements that are considered technical. 

To achieve protection for these technical elements, the application will need to show novelty, inventive step and industrial application. To be ‘novel’, the subject matter must not have already been made available (‘disclosed’) to the public; the requirement for ‘inventive step’ will be met if the technical solution is not obvious to a person skilled in the art; and, ‘industrial application’ will be established by showing that the invention can be made or used in some kind of industry. As a general rule, patent protection in Europe lasts up to 20 years from the date of filing.

Filing for patent protection may be suitable for any technical shortcuts that allow the user to set different processing conditions, improve the performance or reduce the cognitive burden of the user. An example of GUI patent protection is Apple’s method of manipulating the display on mobile devices on touch-sensitive surfaces.  

A toolbox of rights, rather than a single solution

As set out above, there is no single mechanism to achieve complete protection for a GUI. Instead, each IP right provides a different form and term of protection for the different elements of an application’s GUI. In order to receive the broadest possible protection, therefore, it is important to choose the most effective IP right for each element, in order to achieve as complete a protection as possible for the whole. 

This can be a time-sensitive and potentially costly process. If in doubt about how to approach IP protection in this growing sector, please speak to your Novagraaf attorney or contact us below. 

Casper Hemelrijk works at Novagraaf’s Competence Centre in Amsterdam.  

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