You have an awesome app idea, and you’re ready to share it with the world! You might be wondering, though, what you can do to make sure no one steals it.
Can you patent an app? Short answer — yes.
If you’re interested in patenting your app, or just want to learn more about the process, keep reading. Explained below are the basics of how to patent an app, as well as the pros and cons of doing so.
What Is a Patent?
Before we explore the pros and cons of patenting an app, let’s get clear on what a patent is and what it does for you as a business owner.
When an inventor obtains a patent for their invention (in this case, an app), the federal government gives them the right to prevent others from making, selling, or using it. The U.S. Constitution gives Congress the right to grant patents, and several federal rules and regulations govern them.
Patents can be divided into the following 3 categories:
Utility Patents: Utility patents are the most common patent; they’re granted to inventors of new chemicals, machines, and processes
Design Patents: Design patents protect the unique appearance or design of an object
Plant Patents: Plant patents are granted to protect the invention and reproduction of different types of plants (including plant hybrids)
App creators are typically granted a utility patent. In some cases, though, it may make sense to seek out a design patent.
Pros of Patenting an App
There are lots of reasons to consider patenting your app. Here are some of the most noteworthy pros of seeking a patent:
Protect Your Invention
First, and most importantly, patents protect your app and prevent others from stealing your idea and profiting off of your hard work and ingenuity.
From the date the patent is issued, you’re protected. No one will be able to manufacture or sell your app without your consent.
Gain a Competitive Advantage
Patenting your app can often give you an advantage over your competitors. A patent allows you to profit exclusively from your app.
Patent’s also give you superior rights over additional patents. In other words, if someone tries to patent your idea, they won’t be able to get very far because you’ll already be the legal owner.
Earn Licensing Revenue
A patent also creates new opportunities for you to earn money from your app. You can license the patent to others in exchange for a royalty (a specific percentage of the money made from the app) or for a flat fee.
Having a patented app can lend credibility to you and your business. This, in turn, can work in your favor when you’re trying to find investors or partner with other professionals.
If someone sees that you’ve gone to the trouble of patenting your app, they’ll be more inclined to take you seriously.
Cons of Patenting an App
At the same time, there are some potential downsides to consider. Here are a few reasons why you might not want to patent your app:
Patents Use Up Resources
It costs quite a bit of money to patent an app (we break down the costs in more detail later in the FAQ section). Depending on your budget and the amount of money you have access to, it might not make sense to delay getting your app to market because you’re using resources to patent it.
Protection Isn’t Guaranteed
A patent is a great tool to protect your app and prevent others from stealing your idea or profiting from it. However, a patent cannot guarantee 100 percent protection at all times.
The USPTO (the United States Patent and Trademark Office) has a lot of patents to keep track of.
This means you can’t sit back and expect them to do the work of protecting your app for you. You’ll have to monitor the market and look for people who might be infringing upon your patent. If you do notice anything shady going on, you’ll then have to hire an attorney (which is expensive) and work with them to take action against the company that’s profiting from your app idea.
Keep in mind, too, that there are limits to the protection patents can provide. They’re only good in the country where they were issued. For example, if you’re located in the U.S., you can’t prevent people in Germany from copying you.
Patents Only Protect Original Inventions
As a business owner, you know that it’s typical to change up your ideas and products over time. Unfortunately, though, a patent only protects the original version of your app, not any future iterations.
This means that you would have to refile a patent every time you update your app or make any kind of changes to it.
Patents Make Information Public
When you file a patent application for your app, you make specific technical information available to the public.
If your competitors know that you’re working on patenting your app, they could look up this information and then come up with ways to invent around the patent. In other words, they could find a way to legally copy you and take away your business.
In some cases, it might work in your favor to keep information private to protect yourself and your company.
How to Patent an App
If you’ve decided to move forward with patenting your app, you might be feeling a little unsure about where to begin.
Patenting an app can be confusing. However, it’s easier if you follow these steps:
Make Sure You Meet Patent Criteria
Start by making sure you can actually patent your app. If you want to have a patent granted, you’ll need to ensure it meets the following criteria:
You can’t just patent an idea. You have to have specific details and documentation, including information about the app’s coding, its functions, and how it will help your audience.
You must have a novel patent. In other words, another app like it can’t already exist if you’re trying to get a patent for it.
Continuing with the idea of a novel app, your app also has to be non-obvious. If it’s a slight modification of another app, you won’t be granted a patent.
Hire a Patent Attorney
If you believe your app meets these criteria, you can move on to the next step, which is hiring a patent attorney.
It’s not recommended that you try to handle the intricacies of applying for a patent on your own.
A patent attorney will understand the ins and outs and will help you ensure your app has a chance of being patented. They’ll help you to avoid violating any regulations, too.
Check App Originality
Verify the originality of your app before you get too far into the patent application process. It’s a good idea to pay for a thorough patent search (your attorney can help with this).
Conducting a patent search helps you guarantee your idea is original. It will also save you from spending a ton of money and time trying to patent an app that already exists.
Document the Development Process
Remember, you can’t patent an app idea. You need to have proof of a legitimate product if you want to have a chance of getting a patent.
The court will require tangible evidence of an app. To get this, it’s a good idea to document the development process. Create a prototype of the app, too to illustrate what it does and how it works.
Documenting app development can also help your attorney to better represent you. The more information they have about what your app does and how it works, the easier it is for them to navigate the patent application process.
File a Patent Application
Next, you’ll need to file a patent application. There are two types of applications you can file:
A provisional application allows you to file without making a formal patent declaration. It gives you 12 months to develop a minimum viable product (or MVP). It also allows you to use the term “patent pending” on your app.
The provisional option is less expensive than a non-provision application. However, it’s more of an intermediary step. An official patent cannot be issued until after a non-provision application is filed.
Non-provisional applications must contain a written description of the app, as well as a claim that legally defines it.
These applications are more expensive to be filed. However, they may become a patent sooner than a provisional application.
Submit Your Application
Once your attorney has reviewed your application, you’ll be ready to submit it to the USPTO. There’s a lot of paperwork involved in this step, including the following documents:
- Oath or Declaration
- Entity Status Form
- Information Disclosure Statement
- Fee Sheet
- Cover Sheet
Your attorney can help you take care of all these forms. They’ll make sure everything is filled out and formatted correctly.
App Patenting FAQs
Are you still confused about app patenting? Here are answers to some frequently asked questions that may help to clear things up for you:
When to Patent an App
Generally, it’s best to patent your app before you officially disclose it on the market. It’s also a good idea to have a patent before you share your app with potential investors. This helps to protect your project from being duplicated.
It’s worth noting that waiting isn’t always possible or realistic, though. Some creators don’t want to delay getting their project on the market while they wait for their patent to be granted.
How Much Does it Cost to Patent an App?
Patenting an app is not exactly cheap. There are a lot of fees you need to factor in, including the following:
- Elementary filing fees: Typically range from $70 to $280 or more
- Patent search fees: Typically range from $150 to $600
- Patent examination fees: Typically range from $180 to $700
There are also maintenance fees that keep your patent valid, and they get more expensive as time goes on. For example, the 3.5-year maintenance fee can range from $400 to $1600. The 7.5-year maintenance fee ranges from $900 to $3600, and the 11.5-year maintenance fee ranges from $1850 to over $7000.
The cost of filing will also vary depending on whether you use a provisional or non-provisional patent application. For a provisional application, you can expect to pay between $2000 and $5000. For a non-provisional application, the cost is higher (typically between $10,000 and $15,000).
How Long Does it Take to Patent an App?
It often takes quite a long time to patent an app. In many cases, it can take up to 4-6 years for the process to be complete.
Remember, Mark Zuckerburg spent 6 years trying to get a patent for Facebook (it was finally granted in 2012, several years after the site was launched).
Are There Any Alternatives to App Patents?
Yes. If you don’t think app patenting is for you, here are other options to consider:
Copyright is similar to a patent. It also is designed to protect your invention and prevent others from stealing it.
The difference, though, is that copyright is a collection of rights that are issued to an inventor or author. It protects the expression of a person’s ideas, but not their ideas themselves.
In other words, you can copyright an app logo or other aspects of the app. However, you cannot copyright the actual app. This is because copyright doesn’t cover facts, systems, ideas, or operation methods.
A patent will prevent your competitors from making or selling your app. A trademark, on the other hand, will protect the words, logos, phrases, symbols, logos associated with your app.
Similar to copyright, a trademark can protect your app’s logo. It doesn’t protect the app itself, though.
A non-disclosure agreement (or NDA) is signed by everyone with whom you work on your app. This includes your development team, your colleagues, your marketing team, and any investors you reach out to for funding.
An NDA is legally binding. It prevents those who work with you on the app from sharing information about it to outsiders or recreating it themselves.
Start the App Development Process Today
Now that you know more about the pros and cons of obtaining an app patent, are you ready to move forward with the app development process?
Keep the information outlined above in mind so you can make the right decisions for yourself and your business.
If you need help with app development or have more questions, reach out to us today for a consultation or quote.