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Patenting your idea is attractive for a few reasons. Enforcing your patent will protect your business from competitors who might gain an advantage by using your invention. Patent protection grants you the opportunity to license your invention to other companies as well, making competitors dependent upon you and establishing yourself as the market leader. If you believe an acquisition or investment round is in your future, patents can increase your company’s perceived value. With all of these reasons in mind, it’s worth considering whether your app idea is patentable.
What types of things are patentable in software?
It is rare for an entire software product to be patentable. However, most apps do contain several patentable ideas. There are two types of U.S. patents you can seek: design patents and utility patents.
Design patents describe how your product looks, whereas utility patents describe how your product works. Utility patents are usually going to be where you innovate in a mobile or web app. The “utility” may be a unique business process, how you combine separate technologies, or an algorithm for making decisions.
How to identify patentable ideas
We’ve previously outlined a few questions to ask yourself to discover patentable features in your app:
- Is this a new feature that has never before existed?
- Does this feature have some tangible benefit versus the old way of doing things?
- Is creation of this feature non-obvious to others?
Answering these questions for each feature in your app in a simple spreadsheet can help you narrow down where to look for patentable inventions. Even if you feel that the broad strokes of your idea have been done before, the specific way you design your feature may differentiate your idea enough to be patentable.
Examples of patentable ideas
To help you think about the types of features that are patentable, here are a few examples:
- DoorDash filed a patent for autonomous last-mile deliveries. Autonomous driving for last-mile delivery of ordered goods is an unsolved problem (something that has never before existed). The solution has tangible benefits for delivery companies, as it proposes a secure way of utilizing a single vehicle to deliver goods to multiple customers without a delivery driver. The invention is non-obvious to others, as it includes a nuanced description of how to implement product security features.
- A former client of mine was awarded a patent for real-time text communication between mobile devices. At the time, this was a novel feature for mobile devices communicating over cellular networks. The solution enabled faster communication than TCP connections but maintained resilience to data packet loss, so it had tangible benefits for mobile users. This functionality is non-obvious, as it required an understanding of the limitations of cellular networks.
- Stripe patented how to perform credit card transactions over a network using cross-origin communication. This invention was a new idea that had not been done before. It enabled Stripe customers to process payments on their websites without worrying about PCI compliance. The invention was non-obvious, as it required creation of new payment token technologies and an unintuitive use of cross-origin communication.
As these examples showcase, there are all kinds of aspects of an invention that may make it patentable. New methods of doing things, implementation details, leveraging existing tools in new ways, and devising new ways to store or manipulate data are just a few examples of patentable innovations.
Ways to maximize your patent’s value
How you leverage your patent depends on the goals you have for your invention and your business.
If you want to sell your company, a patent portfolio can increase your company’s perceived value to investors. Investors see patents as an offensive and defensive tool: patents give you a competitive advantage, and can be used as a deterrent to competitors looking to enter your market. In other words, patents are almost a form of insurance for your business idea. Therefore, if you are planning to sell your company in a few years, working on your patent portfolio may be a worthwhile investment.
Licensing your technology is another way to maximize your patent’s value. Imagine you build a recruiting platform that has a patented approach for finding the best candidates for job openings. Instead of building up your own business from scratch by selling to individual companies looking to fill open positions, you could pitch your technology to existing recruiting platforms. Patenting your candidate search algorithm would prevent competitors from copying your invention without paying you a licensing fee. You then only need to sell your technology to a few clients instead of hundreds or thousands (though, admittedly, selling your service to Microsoft will look a lot different than selling to a small business).
Patent enforcement also increases the value of your patent portfolio. If you find a competitor who you believe has copied your invention, you can seek a legal remedy. The company violating your patent may decide to settle out of court, or you may need to take them to court to seek an injunction or financial compensation. Competitors who recognize that you are willing and able to enforce your patents will be less likely to copy or emulate your invention. In this way, a robust patent portfolio can deter competitors from benefiting from your invention.
Getting started with a new patent application
Before you can make money from your patent, you will need to file a patent application.
You will want to hire a patent attorney to help you through the application and review process, especially for your first time going through the patent process. A patent attorney can write your patent application, but will need your help. You’ll need to document your idea and explain to your patent attorney which aspects of the invention are novel, valuable, and innovative. They can then place those aspects in the best light for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to understand how your invention meets their criteria for a patent award.
Your patent attorney will also conduct a patent search prior to submitting your application. A patent search is research into whether any existing patents potentially cover your invention. While you can perform a cursory search online on your own, your patent attorney can uncover related patents that you should clearly differentiate your idea from in your patent application to avoid confusion during the review process.
Once your patent application is ready, your patent attorney can assist with filing the application. While you can do all of this work on your own, hiring a professional will save you time and money. Their experience will help you avoid common pitfalls in the application process, minimizing the likelihood of you needing to file multiple times and incur unnecessary filing fees. Being awarded a patent can take months or even years, so it’s best to do what you can upfront to make your first filing attempt successful.