From Code to Patent: Intellectual Property in Software

Walter Code
5 min readJul 10, 2024


In a world where software drives innovation and efficiency, protecting intellectual property is more important than ever. In 2020, the global software market was valued at around $400–500 billion, showing intense competition and rapid technological progress. To stay ahead, companies protect their intellectual property through patents and copyrights.

A software patent or copyright provides legal protection for your software source code, ideas, and inventions. Developers and companies must choose between these two forms of protection, or sometimes both, depending on their needs. Patents protect the functional aspects and innovative processes of the software, while copyrights protect the actual written code from being copied.

Notable Software Patents

Slide to Unlock (Apple): Simplified Device Access

Apple’s design patent (D675,6391) for the ‘slide-to-unlock’ feature, introduced in 2007 on the iPhone’s interface, reshaped smartphone interaction. Apple’s legal battles over this patent, including a landmark victory against Samsung, show its importance in the tech world.

One-Click Buying (Amazon): Simplifying Online Shopping

Amazon’s patent (US5960411A) for “One-Click Buying” transformed online shopping by allowing purchases with a single click. The patent’s impact was evident in legal disputes, like Amazon’s case against Barnes & Noble, highlighting the competitive edge patent protection provides.

Airbnb: Automated Booking Availability

Airbnb’s patent (US Patent №10,896,449) automates booking availability for accommodations, improving prediction accuracy using sophisticated models. This innovation shows how patents drive efficiency in tech platforms.

Source: US20200019892A1 — Automated determination of booking availability for user sourced accommodations — Google Patents

PageRank Algorithm: Enhancing Search Engine Relevance

The PageRank patent (US6285999B1), titled “Method for node ranking in a linked database”, was issued in 1999 and is owned by Stanford University. Although Google holds the trademark rights for “PageRank,” the algorithm was developed by Larry Page during his PhD studies. The patent expired on January 9, 2019.

MP3 Format: Digital Audio Compression Pioneer

An important example in digital music is the patent (US5579430A) for the MP3 encoding process by the Fraunhofer Institut. Granted on November 26, 1996, this technology underpins MPEG Audio Layer III, known as MP3. It encodes audio data to maintain high sound quality while significantly reducing file sizes, revolutionizing music storage and consumption.

Patenting AI and Algorithms

Certain AI and algorithmic innovations can be patented if they meet specific criteria:

· Concrete Applications: AI systems solving specific technical problems innovatively.

· Technical Contribution: The solution must provide a novel technical contribution not obvious to experts.

Examples include AI algorithms that enhance voice recognition in noisy environments or improve search speed in large databases.

Can Code Be Patented?

In today’s digital age, patenting software code is crucial. It involves protecting intellectual property through formal applications, which must meet criteria such as novelty, non-obviousness, and utility. Patenting software code ensures protection against unauthorized use, though it can be complex due to multiple contributors and rapid technological advancements.

Software Patent vs. Copyright

Two key types of IP protection relevant to software are copyright and patents. Copyright covers the expression of the software code. However, copyright only protects the exact source code, and minor changes can get around this protection. Patents, on the other hand, protect the novel features, processes, and design of a system that powers an app. A patent covers the system architecture and the various processes and data manipulations carried out by a computer.

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

The Software Patent Application Process

Securing a software patent involves several steps:

· Consult a Patent Attorney: Start with a discussion with an experienced patent attorney.

· Conduct a Prior Art Search: This identifies prior art references that might prevent getting a patent and helps draft the application.

· Draft the Application: The application is a collaboration between the attorney (who knows the legal requirements) and the client (who knows the technology).

· File the Application: Once filed, a patent examiner with expertise in the technology area examines the application and issues a letter identifying patentable and non-patentable claims.

· Respond to the Examiner: Applicants, through their attorney, can respond to any deficiencies and request the application’s allowance.

Time Commitment

Obtaining a software patent typically takes about two years. Initial patent searches can take up to three weeks. Expedited options, like “Track One” applications, are available for an additional fee, and certain applicants, such as those over 65, may qualify for free acceleration. Engaging a skilled attorney can streamline the process.

Cost Considerations

The costs involved in securing a software patent can vary significantly depending on the complexity of the invention and the legal services used for the application process. These costs include application filing fees, which are typically nonrefundable, and can vary by jurisdiction. It’s also important to budget for legal representation and prosecution costs, which can range depending on the expertise of the patent attorney or firm. Additionally, there are ongoing maintenance fees required after a patent is granted to keep it in force.