* Full disclosure: we’re neither lawyers nor experts in the protection of Intellectual Property. But we have had these conversations with clients and IP lawyers and here is our simplified view. We recommend getting a formal legal opinion.

Many clients ask us this question in different ways. For example “How can I patent my app?”. A patent is a legal title to an invention that stops other people from copying it.

The Lowdown

  • There are different types of patents – provisional and full patents, local and international patents. These all have different requirements, costs and rights linked to them.
  • You can’t legally protect an idea. You can only patent something that already exists in the real world such as a physical invention.
  • You can’t patent software by itself. You can sometimes protect it where the software is interacting with hardware. For example, an app that uses a sensor in the phone. However, we actually have seen provisional patents being issued for software. So this may be enough to deter your competitors for a year.
  • To patent something, it must be non-obvious, unique and actually exist within a window of time, for example within 12 months from the provisional patent being granted.

Remember, there is a big difference between patenting your idea and owning the Intellectual Property and code that goes into building it. With our clients, we are clear that the IP they provide, and the code we build for them, belongs to them. (As long as it’s been paid for and there are no unusual elements to the project where for example we’re using a third-party platform). So whilst someone else may try to copy your idea, they would still have to go and build the code themselves.

We usually advise clients not to get too hungup about protecting their idea. It isn’t patents that have made the most successful apps/ software what they are. It is having a good idea, executing it well, being the first to market and then improving it quickly. Most apps have strong “network” effects. This means that the more people that use it, the better it becomes for all the other users. If you tried to copy Instagram no one would join because what’s the appeal of a social app with no other users? The same applies to Uber, WhatsApp and many other apps. The first phone ever invented wasn’t much use until another was made!

So don’t worry too much about protecting your idea because you probably can’t. Instead, focus on getting it launched and keep improving it.