App developers face complex challenges in creating applications that are unique, in-demand and profitable. These challenges are equaled by how best to protect the app’s intellectual property (IP). It’s not always a small unknown competitor who is accused of IP infringement, as evidenced by the recent IP Watchdog coverage of the USAA case against Bank of America and Wells Fargo.
Patents last anywhere from 15-20 years, depending on the classification as either a design or utility patent. Patent and trademark attorneys who understand the app development lifecycle can plot a course for the best IP protection in the post-app development stage as well.
Utility Patent Protection
Like other software inventions, apps can be protected by Utility Patents for a term of 20 years from filing. This does not negate the challenge of the abstracted definition of what constitutes patentability. Ensuring that the app meets this threshold is highly dependent on the expertise and experience of the patent and trademark attorneys that draft and submit the application. This comes down to a deep understanding of the laws, precedents and the nature of the invention.
The USAA infringement case demonstrates how an app that automates a financial process and displays data can run afoul of potential patent infringement. This has led to a legal atmosphere where these types of patent applications receive much greater scrutiny and are often rejected due to the abstract nature of the idea behind the app’s IP. It becomes much easier to rise above the law’s abstract language with apps that bring clear real-world change that is unprecedented in the realm of technology and communications.
While the process of applying for patent protection can be long and expensive, it takes deep insights to know when that investment will be worthwhile. Patent and trademark attorneys with a long track record of approved design patent filings can help companies define the proper course and the viability of a patent filing when they are consulted early in the design phase.
This provides the startup company with the following advantages:
- Avoiding infringement against existing patents
- A greater understanding of the role of patents, trademarks and copyright law
- The foundation needed to maximize protection of an app throughout its post-development lifecycle.
Having this knowledge early in the design process enables app developers and the company to better determine the app differentiators, and to develop insights that help determine if the commercial possibilities justify the cost of development and marketing. In addition, the company can better determine if the projected app lifecycle justifies the costs.
Design Patent Protection
App developers will also need to look at protecting the appearance of the app in terms of its physical iconography and user interface via a design patent. Since a Design Patent is structured around design drawings, the registration process and cost is significantly less than that of a Utility Patent. It also provides a shorter protection period at 15 years.
Other important protections that skilled trademark and patent attorneys with deep understanding of information technology law can provide include Trademark and Copyright protection. This protects the name of the app and its appearance. As design patents and
trademarks protect key coding level as well as physical/marketing design aspects of the app, it’s often imperative for a company to pursue both. Copyright for apps is essentially free in terms of filing. They protect the app’s code, as well as any graphics, artwork, and logos that define the product. This includes the company and its brand as soon as they are created by the developer. The process of ensuring the Copyright protection is registered and affixed to all mentions or iterations of the software is crucial to providing protection.
Protecting Apps Throughout the Lifecycle
It’s common for startups and enterprises to evolve an application to meet market and end user needs. Making these changes in the app either on a code, packaging or branding level requires filing modifications as the specific nature of patents only protects the initial invention and not future iterations.
This is a clear reason why it’s important to work with experienced patent and trademark attorneys who are well versed in IP law. By having long-term legal partners, a company and its app developers can ensure that as the brand and the app evolves the refiling process can keep pace with each iteration to consistent legal protection.