Despite being a very vocal opponent of software patents and how they're used, Google recently applied for a patent on its variant of a slide-to-unlock feature. If you've ever participated in, or even observed, the heated debates over software patents, then you're likely familiar with Apple's slide-to-unlock patents (the first issued in 2010; the second issued this year). It's a controversial topic and Google's attempt to get into this patent space is interesting — so let's take a closer look at what's actually going on. 

Google's patent application

Contrary to many reports, Google hasn't yet received an issued patent on this. It merely has a patent application pending at the US Patent Office. Still, the application was made public on Thursday and provides some insight into what Google is trying to single out for patent protection. 

While the patent application includes many claims that define what is covered, the broadest describe detecting a predefined shape on a locked screen and then executing an action when that shape is drawn. The executed actions can include unlocking the screen, adjusting the volume, displaying the calendar and contacts, and other actions like that. It's also important to note that the predefined shape can be drawn anywhere on the screen — it's not restricted to the area of a predefined image or puzzle pattern on the screen. 

But didn't Apple already patent this type of lock / unlock feature, twice? Maybe not. In fact, it's very likely Google's trying to work around Apple's patented slide-to-unlock feature here. So, while Apple's original patent application on the unlock feature was filed nearly six years ago, we shouldn't assume it's the most relevant prior art. And the patent office doesn't think so, either. Back in late October, the patent office examined Google's patent application and rejected each of the pending claims for various reasons. Apple's patents aren't referenced in the rejections, but some other interesting points are raised.

Can't patent pure software

First, Google received a relatively rare "non-statutory subject matter" rejection for certain claims in its application — indicating that Google was trying to capture the purely abstract idea of software, without sufficiently calling out details of how the software worked with hardware. However, before anyone gets too excited and assumes this signals a new initiative by the patent office to reject software patents, these claims were simply lacking requisite hardware elements. A patent attorney armed with a few spare minutes and a handful or two of additional words should be able to skirt this formal obstacle. Nevertheless, it's a strange rejection for Google to face right out of the gate.

Samsung prior art

The second interesting component of the rejections Google received from the patent office centers around the actual prior art that was used against the patent claims — a Samsung patent application (also not an issued patent yet). It turns out Samsung filed its own patent application on an eerily similar lock screen feature back in 2008 — nearly two years before Google. Sometimes a picture truly is worth a thousand words, so let's take a look at a sample figure from Samsung's document.

   Screen_shot_2011-11-19_at_2

This illustration shows a user drawing a predefined shape on a locked screen, to unlock the device. And the written portion of Samung's application also explains that the shape can be drawn anywhere on the screen, and can do more than just unlock the device: it can display contacts and call logs, initiate messaging and dialing, and other actions of that sort. In general, that sounds an awful lot like what Google is trying to cover with its patent application.

Wrap-up

There's no doubt that this Samsung application has the potential to present some real problems for Google, but that doesn't mean Google won't be able to get some coverage on the finer details of its lock screen features. For now, it means Samsung, a key Android partner, beat Google to the patent office and probably has the better chance at getting broader patent protection. The timing of this situation alone raises a lot of questions. Did Samsung come up with these features independently? Did Google just move too slowly? If so, doesn't Google understand that delay can be a killer in patenting innovation? It's hard to say, but Google's not likely to have much luck adding meaningful assets to its patent portfolio if this is the pace at which it moves. On the bright side, while the Samsung application may eventually prevent Google from getting the patent protection it really wants, Samsung just might play nice and license the technology to its partner.