A shopper walks past a giant advertisment for the Apple iPhone 5 near Oxford Street on December 17, 2012 in London, England. - 

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has dealt Apple some bitter news. Apple had a pending patent, claiming it owned and originated the idea of "pinching and zooming" on our smart phones.

That patent was rejected on the basis that Apple's patent was not novel (a requirement) or was obvious (another requirement). Apple is likely to appeal that decision, so the patent has not technically been declared invalid.

This complicates the outcome of a $1 billion judgement a jury leveled against Samsung in August for violating Apple patents.

"This is the problem with software technologies in general," says James Besson, an economist who specializes in patent law at Boston University. "There are a lot of very common ideas; a lot of these ideas overlap; and when you get the lawyers involved and it comes down to defining things in words, it's very hard to know where one patent starts and another one ends."

And the patent wars aren't likely to end anytime soon, adds Besson. "This decision is just the first round at the patent office," he points out. "Apple will almost certainly appeal it. But if this looks like it is holding up some months from now... this may influence the judge in terms of re-evaluating whether $1 billion in damages is the appropriate figure."


Follow Jeff Horwich at @jeffhorwich