How to Protect an "Idea"

How to Protect an "Idea"

by Joe Runge, Esq., June 2016

You break through the tape on the box. The carafe for the coffee pot isn't in this one either. Frustrated, you keep searching the garage. Across the street, your new neighbor is moving the sprinkler. You don't even know her name.

After six months in your new house, all your neighbors are still strangers.

You're opening Facebook to complain to friends when it hits you: What if there were a social network where you could easily connect with the people who live next to you? An online network to meet your neighbors. It is an idea too good not to protect, and you're going to need something to get that protection.

It's All About the "Hows"

For now, your idea is only in its infancy. You know what you want but have yet to figure out the specifics of how to design, code, and implement your idea. To protect your neighborhood social network, at this stage, is going to be difficult.

Patent lawyers describe inventions in terms of how they work, not what they want to do. In order to write strong patents for your social network, you must identify the "hows":

  • How is the user interface going to look?
  • How does the network arrange its IT infrastructure?
  • How are you going to secure your network?

These details are important because they reflect how you will distinguish your invention from other social networks.

The details are also important to help determine if your social network is the kind of thing that should get patent protection. Patent law lays out classes of inventions that are patentable. Software inventions—like a social network—are an evolving area of law. It is difficult to predict what rules will govern when a software invention is patentable. The more details you can include in your application, the better an argument you will make that your invention should be patented.

Or maybe your invention isn't the kind of thing that should be patented. If that is the case, then the "hows" will help you find alternative protection.

"Hows" Are What Protect Intellectual Property

The key to a neighborhood social network is validating that its members live where they claim. Your proprietary algorithm for validating members' addresses is essential intellectual property. It could also be a secret you keep on a remote server. Trade secrets can be an alternative to patent protection. They offer less formal protection but work for ideas you can keep locked in a vault or secured server.

Your user interface, on the other hand, may be protectable by a design patent. And the code you write may be protectable by copyright. As you break down the details of what makes your social network go, you will inevitably find all the "hows" that add protectable intellectual property.

These "how" details can be really hard. Maybe you know how to write the network code, but you don't know anything about user interface. Maybe you can secure the network, but you cannot design the overall infrastructure. Maybe you don't know anything about social networks. You still can be an inventor and turn your idea into reality.

Knowing the "Hows" Makes Your Idea More Valuable

You're going to have to solve the "hows" anyway. That big investor you plan to wow with your new concept is not going to invest unless you tell her how you're going to spend her money to make this social network a real thing. That explanation will require details.

The great idea is what gets you the meeting. The "hows" are what get you the investment.

So, get to work. Find people who can explain the "hows" of making your neighborhood social network. Work with them to create the right diagrams, flowcharts, and mock-ups. Include them in a provisional patent application and see if you can get a first installment on that investment.

If you have a good idea, then it is worth the effort. By taking the time to figure out how to make your invention work before you seek protection, you will end up with better protection and be well on your way to building the business case to bring your idea into reality.

Have an idea you want to protect? Talk to an attorney who can answer your questions about the patent process and tell you the next steps when you sign up for the business legal plan. Get legal advice on how to protect your invention for an affordable price.