Please note this post is only applicable for inventions that are solely software based (that is, those that do not include any specific hardware, except for a general purpose computer like a smartphone or personal computer).

Can you patent a mobile app based idea? of course. However, there are caveats involved.

Let’s consider a hypothetical (inspired by a real patent application, filed by a big law firm for a big technology company). You come up with an improved idea of a ride sharing mobile app (similar to Lyft or Uber), but your mobile app provides unique features not available to either — let’s say an enhancement on the Uber pool or Lyft line feature, where your app can automatically coordinate a shared ride with members of your favorite social group, all heading to the same destination (think a meet up at your favorite club in or near your hometown). Seems pretty cool, right? So you decide to file a patent on your idea.

 

You go to your patent attorney and provide him/her your disclosure:

The mobile app can match ride sharing users all heading to the same location. It does the following:

  1. It identifies each member of the social group and their an initial location. Thereafter it can estimate that the members of the social group are attempting to meet at a particular destination location.
  2. The mobile app then generates a proposed transportation route that extends from the initial location and terminates at the destination location. The app determines a proposed transportation route for a set of users.
  3. A first member is identified (from where the trip is to begin) and once the first member accepts the route, a notification is sent to the second member from the set (of users) informing him/her that the route has been initiated.
  4. If the second member accepts the route, the driver of the first member receives a notification to initiate a second stop, and so on.

 

Of course you provide other details and augment your invention with flow charts as required to generate an adequate disclosure for a patent application, but you do not propose a solution to the most important step —  that is —  how a computer, not a human, performs the actions of identifying the users, estimating a route, informing the members of the route, etc.

The patent office rejects your application holding it to be an abstract idea that was implemented on a mobile device (a computer), as it did in the real-world patent application. Subsequently, just like the real-world Applicant ( the big technology company) you  abandon the application.

Unfortunately, in the land of Alice , such patent applications get rejected (and eventually abandoned) on a daily basis. Big technology companies (or big law firms) are not immune from the high standards the patent office expects from software patent applications.

The lesson here is: before attempting to file a patent (at least before pursuing a non-provisional filing) for a mobile app, please ensure you have a technical write-up on how a computer (not a human) performs the actions that you propose to be your invention. If you are unable to provide such information, you might be setting yourself up for failure.