In the second of Apple’s patent infringement lawsuits, Samsung was ordered to pay Apple approximately 120 million dollars. One of the patents at issue was Apple’s patent for predictive text input, for which the judge ruled in Apple’s favor before the trial began, without hearing any evidence (a “summary judgement”). Last week, the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) rejected this patent, on the grounds of “prior art.”

In case you’re not up to speed on what all of this terminology means, allow us to digress for a moment. In order for an invention to be patentable, it must be novel (substantially new), and non-obvious, or a non-obvious improvement on an existing invention. If the invention is substantially the same as something which already exists (prior art), it is not eligible for patent. Unfortunately, today’s Patent Office is overwhelmed with patent applications, and all too frequently does not thoroughly search for a pre-existing use of similar technology. Rather, it issues the patent, and relies on the courts to sort it out. Even more unfortunate, judges aren’t trained in technology, and often don’t understand the technical (as opposed to legal) issues at hand.

Because the judge in Apple vs. Samsung didn’t examine the validity of Apple’s patent on predictive text input, Samsung requested the PTO to reexamine the patent, and this time the PTO found Apple did not invent, or substantially improve, this technology. Legally, it is not possible to infringe on an invalid patent, so if this decision stands it could significantly lower the payment Samsung will have to make. The PTO’s decision is not yet final, and Apple has the right to appeal, but this appears to be good news for Samsung.

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Sadly, it’s yet another example of the failure of the PTO to properly evaluate patent applications in the first place, and of the court system’s difficulty in dealing with highly technical cases.

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