After launching a software business and obtaining a software patent with a well-known California law firm for my initial startup — and finally choosing to drop it after spending a ton of money but going nowhere — here’s my take on the question of whether a software patent is really worth it.
Although patents for things other than software are legitimate and have a clear purpose, software patents feel like a joke. Below is what I now understand about the process of obtaining a software patent. It goes something like this:
Think of an idea.
Don’t write any code, test any model, or do anything else with that idea.
Spend $5,000-$10,000 to have a patent attorney write about your idea in a patent format.
Wait one to two years.
Continue to pay your attorney while they “update” you on the progress and do little things like keeping the paperwork filed.
Have your patent denied.
Spend another $5,000-$20,000 to have the patent attorney re-word your patent and go back to Step 4; repeat.
But can’t it be easily copied?
People will tell you that any software can easily be copied. These are also the same people who have most likely never written or produced software, especially a web or mobile app.
Yes, anyone can look at an idea and say, “I want to build that.” But it’s never as easy as it seems. The team that executes and the leaders who direct make software successful.
Anyone can have an idea, but it’s how you execute that idea that makes the difference. You will need to decide where you personally stand on this. If you think that anyone will be able to copy your idea and put you out of business, then either call a patent attorney or think of ways to make your own knowledge more critical.
I’ve heard talk of patent portfolios.
Ignore it. At this point, until you have in-house lawyers who can spend their waking hours creating a slew of software patents for ideas that you may or may not have thought of yet, there’s no point in trying to build one. Instead, invest your time and money on building a business that works.
Software patents can’t keep up.
Technology moves too fast for software patents to keep up. By the time you get your software patented, your business could have already pivoted. You could have already exited, gone out of business, or worse yet, your entire patent could be outdated.
What’s more valuable than software?
Your experience is what is valuable, not your software. Our GoFanbase app could be copied, yes. But it’s our eight years of industry specific knowledge and domain that most can’t copy or access.
If someone were to look at our app and just make a copy, they might get some things right. However, they wouldn’t know why we did what we did. They might think they have a better way to do things, but they would be wrong. Additionally, by the time they’ve finished copying what we’ve already done, we’d be five steps ahead.
Plus, consumers can tell when something is a knock-off. Makeshift software that doesn’t solve a problem is a sure sign.
What is my best protection?
Speed is your best protection. Solve a problem correctly and build a fast team that can produce continual solutions as the problem advances with technology. The U.S. Patent Office won’t be able to keep up and neither will your competitors. Keep that edge, and know you’re spending money in the right places.
In the end, your business’s individual expertise and knowledge of your industry are what makes your product valuable — and that cannot be copied.
This article has been edited and condensed.
Micah Johnson started his first business at 20, was featured in the DMA’s 30 under 30 (at the age of 29), and currently runs GoFanbase, Inc. which helps multi-location organizations optimize their infrastructure to maximize social media and online reputation effectiveness. A version of this post originally appeared on Medium. Connect with @thempjohnson on Twitter.