With the constant chatter online about the ongoing patent battles between big technology companies like Apple and Samsung, it seems like software patents are all the rage these days. The basic reason behind this is simple: a patent gives your business protection against competitors. And in business, anything you can do to get an edge on the competition is a good thing, right? This leaves many startup founders and website owners wondering whether they might benefit from getting a patent. So the following post aims to answer the question can you patent a website and looks into the basics of software patents, as well as other ways of protecting intellectual property on a website.
Can You Patent a Website?
Despite what you might think, the short answer to this question is actually no. You can’t just get a patent on an entire website.
Websites are made up of a bunch of different parts which work together. First there are the design elements, which create the look and feel of the site and what you actually see on the screen. Then there’s the actual code running behind the scenes, which interacts with a server and the user’s computer to enable the website’s functionality. There is the website content, such as text, images, sounds, and videos that people can consume. And finally, if your website is part of a functioning business, there are probably some additional processes taking place on the website, such as the purchasing of goods and services.
There may be aspects of the various components of a website that are patentable, but it is unlikely that you would be able to patent the entire website as a whole. So what is patentable about a website?
What Can You Patent on a Website
To get a patent, your invention must meet 3 basic requirements of patentability. It must be 1) new, 2) useful, and 3) non-obvious. If that’s the case, then there are 3 types of patents you can choose to apply for: utility, design, and plant patents.
Clearly a website is not a new species of plant, so plant patents are out of the question. A design patent is meant to protect the look, shape, or texture of an article of manufacture. That does not really encompass the look and feel or your website unfortunately, no matter how pixel-perfect the design is. So design patents would not be a viable option for a website.
That leaves just utility patents. According to the USPTO, utility patents protect machines, processes, articles of manufacture, or compositions of matter. When it comes to websites, the only patentable things are likely the “processes” that take place, enabled by the website’s software, or code.
Software Patent Basics
Software patents are a very controversial subject. Some people argue that software patents actually inhibit innovation, which is the opposite of what a patent is supposed to do. But regardless of whether software patents are a good thing or not, the USPTO has decided that software can be protected by a patent in certain instances.
Most commonly, US companies apply for software patents to protect innovative “processes” that take place on their apps and websites. Specifically, there have been a number of patents issued to internet companies for “business methods.” These patents protect innovative ways of doing business by using special software. For example, Amazon was able to secure a patent for it’s “One Click Checkout” process, and they ended up in a lawsuit with Barnes and Noble over it.
The internet allows for such rapid innovation and technological change that it seems like it makes sense to protect your company’s innovative ideas with a patent, but that isn’t always the case. There may actually be other types of intellectual property that are better to protect your website and business.
How to Protect Intellectual Property on a Website
A patent might be an option to protect certain aspects of your website’s business method. But patents are very expensive to pursue, they take years to be approved, and there are no guarantees that they will even be valid. For those reasons, patents are mostly pursued by large companies with enough resources to make it worthwhile. For the average small internet business or website, other types of IP might be even more compelling than patents.
Copyrights are a great way to protect all of the content on your website, even including the source code. By default, the creator of a work automatically owns the copyright, but it can be a good idea to gain added protection by registering the copyright with the US copyright office. Plus, unlike patents which only last 20 years, copyrights last 70 years past the death of the owner. If the owner is a company like an LLC or corporation which never dies, the copyright can last forever.
Trademarks protect your company name, image, brand, logo, and specific slogans or product names. The internet makes it extremely easy for anyone to publish information, and there is a lot of fraudulent activity and plagiarism that takes place. So, it is wise to register a trademark for your website or company name to avoid confusion amongst web visitors and protect your site against similar websites and competitors that are targeting your customers.
A trade secret is, quite simply, a piece of valuable information that is kept secret from the competition. A good example is Coca Cola’s famous recipe – no one outside the company knows exactly what it is. Trade secrets can be protected through careful use of non-disclosure agreements, confidentiality agreements, IP assignments, and other documents that are used with all employees and contractors that work for the company. When it comes to websites, you might also keep certain aspects of your software code a secret by using encryption technology.
IP creation and protection is one of the most important efforts a company can make toward creating long term value. Not only does intellectual property allow your company to have an edge against competitors, but it is often a crucial aspect of how the business functions and operates, especially for a website based business that is constantly looking to innovate.
Therefore, it is a good idea for any business, especially a website business, to consult with a lawyer that is experienced and knowledgable about intellectual property protection. To learn more, here is a complete guide to intellectual property protection where you can find out about patents, copyrights, trademarks, and trade secrets and come up with the best strategy for protecting your IP.
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