Apple won an important victory on Thursday against Motorola in the form of a claim construction order from US Judge Richard A. Posner, interpreting the meaning of certain claim language in Apple's US Patent No. 7,479,949 relating to scrolling behavior. While the court didn't provide a decisive infringement ruling, it did get Apple one step closer to that ultimate goal by adopting its broad interpretation of the patent. The judge was tasked this time with construing claims in the '949 patent on multi-dimensional scrolling on a touch device — simply put, an upward or downward finger swipe that starts off along an angular path, that's not perfectly vertical, will still be interpreted and locked in as a pure vertical movement to prevent horizontal scrolling.
Claim construction is a proceeding common to all US patent litigation, where the judge dissects terms or phrases in the patent claims in an attempt to better define the real scope of the patent. Defendants generally seek a narrow interpretation that will get them out of infringement and patent owners go after a broad interpretation that will nearly guarantee a finding of infringement. In this case, Motorola wanted the court to insert a narrow requirement into this particular claim language that a finger swipe had to move within exactly 27 degrees of being perfectly vertical before the device would translate that movement into a purely vertical scroll. Apple, of course, didn't want any specific thresholds imposed on the angle of movement. Judge Posner agreed with Apple's broader interpretation of the claim language, merely requiring that the angle fall within a predetermined range of perfectly vertical:
a heuristic that uses as one input the initial angle of the user's finger swipe gesture and determines whether that angle is within a predetermined range of being perfectly vertical, as shown for example in Figure 39C...
A "predetermined range" is exactly what Apple wanted — it's a malleable phrase that's difficult for Motorola, or Android in general, to avoid. The court ruled similarly for other claim language covering the translation of angular finger swipes into horizontal scrolling.
Despite the importance of this ruling for Apple, it's too early to start writing Motorola's eulogy. The court has yet to specifically rule on the issue of infringement. That will either be done in upcoming summary judgment proceedings, or it could even get put off until a later jury trial. Moreover, getting your patent claims interpreted broadly can sometimes present its own problems — the broader the patent, the easier it can be for a defendant to find evidence that the patent is invalid due to prior use or publications. Rest assured that Motorola's actively searching for devices that implemented this type of dimensional scrolling behavior before the 2006 priority date of the '949 patent. There's still a lot for Apple and Motorola to fight over in this 358 page patent.