What Is A Patent? Our 3 Step Explanation & [How To Guide].

Patents are in the news, for better or worse – so what exactly are they?

Patents are a form of intellectual property – intangible property that can be bought, sold and rented just like any other form of property. However, there are rules which determine whether you can protect your idea with a patent. We have collected some of these rules below.

Some important patent rules:

1. Patentable category of ideas

In order to be protected by a patent, an invention (idea) needs to fall into a patentable category, such as electronics, software, chemical molecule, protein and so forth. Software patents can include app patents, game patents and more.

For software patents, you need to include enough technical description to fall into this category. Unfortunately, in the past many inventors believed that being “vague” and overly broad was best for their patent. This changed with the recent Supreme Court decision (see our post on Who the @#$%&! is Alice? for more information).

Now more detail is definitely better, particularly more technical details. You need to describe the inner workings of your software. For example, if you have a client-server system – an app which communicates with a remote computer for at least part of its functions for example – then you need to not only describe what the client (app) does, but also what the remote computer (server) does.

The standard is that you need to provide enough information for an ordinary programmer in your field to understand, make and use your invention. If your software is specialized – for example image processing software – then this ordinary programmer can be assumed to be familiar with your specialty area.

What does this have to do with your category of idea? Software is tricky because it is considered to be patentable only when the patent has certain characteristics – like having enough technical detail. Otherwise, it may be considered as a “mere abstract idea” which is not patentable.

2. Your idea – who’s on first?

Your invention (idea) is judged in comparison to the prior art. “Prior art” refers to any published information – patents, websites, printed material, products that were sold and so forth. You need to file your patent application before someone else publishes about your idea (or a similar idea). However, in the US only, you can publish information about your idea up to one year before your file your patent application.

What does “publish” mean? Publishing your idea includes releasing an app or other software, giving information about it on your website, describing it in a Ted talk, being published on TechCrunch, etc. Any type of public release of information is considered a publication. As a rule of thumb, if you can’t guarantee that your release of information will stay private, you should assume that it’s a publication.

Also note that if you publish your idea quickly, you can prevent someone from filing a patent for your idea (or a similar idea) after publication. But if you wait, don’t publish and don’t file your patent, someone else could file first – and then you’ll be dead in the water.

3. Is your idea unique?

Your invention (idea) is compared to the prior art to see whether it is be novel and non-obvious. “Novel” means new and is a low standard. “Non-obvious” is subjective; it basically means that your invention is, well, inventive – that it goes beyond a mere modification of the existing technology, so that it is truly innovative.

These standards are subjective. You need to be able to defend the uniqueness of your idea and how it improves an existing product or process – or creates a new one. You should be able to explain why your idea makes the world a better place and improves peoples’ lives. Sounds hokey but such benefits can help show why your idea is truly innovative – and deserves a patent.



As you can see, delaying your patent protection can mean that you can’t protect your unique software idea with a patent. What’s worse is that someone else may file for a patent on a similar idea and then block you from using it. We have more information about software patents. Don’t see an answer to a question that you have? Just ask us!

Want to get started & protect your unique software idea before someone else does? Click on the button below and we’ll help you to protect your idea.


For more information like this post, please subscribe to our newsletter!

Please fill in your email address and your questions.

Recommended Posts