As one of the most quickly emerging business sectors, smartphone apps attract significant attention. A lot of web developers went into developing apps expecting to create THE ONE, which will attract thousands of users overnight and create imediate profits. Since the competition is already huge, good idea and quality implementation is essential. Implementation is something, that no one can steal from you, though ideas- they can be easily stolen. Especially if you release the app by adding it to the AppStore (iOS) or Play (Android). One can posess a big advantage if he/she is first to launch an app for a cetrain task (idea) and was smart enough to perform effective marketing campaign in order to promote it.
Being the first to launch a smartphone app also draws a risk of being copied, especially if the software becomes polular. The app store operators do not accept any liability if the application is later copied (reverse engineered). On the other hand, it is rather impossile to control such counterfeit actions by any means after the app is launched and made available publicly. So what should a web or app developer do before launching, in order to protect his/her idea?
Smarthone apps, which can be protected with patents
Essentially there are two ways of seeking for protection in case of web application or smartphone app. One, which can be used almost without limitations is design registration. User interfaces, graphical objects, layouts or any other kind of original visual content within an app or a website can be registered in the design register, if only it meets criteria of novelty. Such protection is quite cost effective and a certifiacate is issued relatively fast. However, with this kind of protection, one can barelly get exclusivity for operation of the software product.
But what if the operation and the biggest value of the app or website is more functional? In such case, invention patents could be a preferable option for protecting the app idea. But in this case, there are certain requirements for the complete solution. It might be very hard or even impossible to protect an app, if it doesn't include any 'technical character'. Based on common practice, said technical character usually means ' interaction with some internal or external device'.
Highest chance of getting a strong patent is for a system, wherein the smartphone or tablet app is communicating, controlling or otherwise interacting with external electronics or electromechanics devices. Second strongest patent may be obtained for apps, which interact with smartphone or tablet integrated devices, such as camera, GPS, accelerometers, or similar. Also the patent is potentially strong, if, by the help of the app, the device is interacting with other devices of data pocket or telcommunication networks in a novel and ' inventive' way.
It is pretty hard to get a strong patent for an app, which interacts just with input or output means, such as display, input keyboard, touch screen, microphone or speaker. However, many patents are issued for such solutions, especially in the United States.
Is it worth to patent smartphone or tablet apps?
The app 'world' is extremely dynamic. Novel apps with great ideas come and go, some of them stay for several years. But patents are issued for 20 years, which is a lot for such ever-changing world. However, smartphone or tablet solutions, which include interaction with some external devices, such as remote security and alarm systems, control systems or gadgets, such as fish finder, are expected to be viable for tens of years, thus patenting becomes very reasonable.
On the other hand, a great chalenge is to draft patent application such, that it would retain broad scope of protection during several years from the moment it has been written. Therefore it is extremelly important to choose more general titles for devices. 'Smartphone' or 'tablet' is something, which exists today, but what if tomorrow we will have 'smart watches' or 'smart skin'? What if the most popular input device will be holographic image in the air in front of a person? This is just one example, how important is quality patent drafting for long lasting effective idea protection.
Last, but not least - inventor shall always consider enforcement, before going into patenting. Tangible products, such as smartphones or tablets are much easier to find and recognise in case of infringement. Apps can be downloaded from number of sources into wide range of compatible devices, making it really difficult to track the amount of apps downloaded. At least appstores show the approximate number of apps downloaded, so if you have a patent on an phone application and have detected someone infringing your rights, immediatelly and regularly take a snapshot of the number of downloads in the Appstore or the Play.
Smartphone or tablet app patenting is a great way of idea protection, which provides highly valuable exclusivity. However, not all app solutions are prone to be successfuly patented. Lifetime of a software product shall be always considered with respect to 20 years of patent validity. Some ideas rather gain from fast launch and effective marketing, rather than from patent protection. Yet app patent protection is another chalenge.