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Judge affirms vital Apple touchscreen patent in case against Motorola

Judge Richard Posner has issued an order upholding some of Apple's patent claims against Motorola Mobility that one analysis believes will likely result in a finding of infringement on Motorola's part.

Patent expert Florian Mueller of Foss Patents reported on Saturday that the order is for a touchscreen heuristics patent ('949), one of the "killer patents" that Apple is leveraging in an attempt to get a legal "hole in one" against its competitors.

Thus far, Apple has won a handful of legal victories on minor patents, but the '949 patent has "the best prospects of singlehandedly securing victory for Apple," according to Mueller. Both Motorola and Samsung will offer their defenses against it at trials in June.

The patent in question outlines Apple's work on interpreting human touchscreen input by accounting for inherent imprecision. For instance, since users don't draw perfectly straight lines, touchscreen devices need a level of tolerance to understand the input accurately.

Judge Posner responded on Thursday to supplemental claim construction briefs related to the patent from both Apple and Motorola. Mueller interpreted the order to be "a clear win for Apple over Motorola (and Android in general)." Though he did note that jury trials come with "considerable uncertainty," he viewed Posner's conclusions as making it "realistically" unavoidable for Motorola to avoid a finding of infringement.

"Motorola…will have to come up with some really good invalidity arguments if it wants to avoid a disaster," Mueller wrote, adding that the company will at least have an opportunity to appeal any decision to the Federal Circuit.

The report went on to examine which gestures Posner had found valid. The judge sided with Apple on its methods for interpreting vertical and diagonal or horizontal and diagonal swipes. He found that the patent hadn't clearly described the difference between horizontal scrolling and swiping, while upholding a claim to tapping on the margin of a screen as a gesture to move to the next item. Posner also upheld Apple's claims for scrolling within a section of a display using additional fingers, but he did not affirm a second claim to a distinction on whether the gesture occurred within the region.

Mueller viewed Posner as having "expressed some annoyance" at one of Motorola's arguments. The handset maker had argued that an example of a 27-degree angle in Apple's patent meant that the patent was only limited to that angle. After reading the patent, Mueller himself believes that the 27-degree angle is "clearly identified" as just an example.

"I reject Motorola's argument (this is the third time they've made it and the third time I reject it) that the structure must be limited to the 27-degree angle used as an example by the specification," Posner wrote.

Apple and Motorola have been locked in a complex legal dispute over their respective intellectual property rights since 2010. Both companies have recently won small victories in the form of injunctions (1, 2) against each other in Germany. Earlier this month, the ITC cleared Motorola of allegations that it had infringed on three of Apple's patents.

Even as the lawsuits between the two companies continue, Google is making plans to finalize its $12.5 billion purchase of Motorola. The European Commission and the U.S. Department of Justice have both approved the acquisition.