I have always been hesitant and somewhat skeptical of software patents so it's ironic that I am now celebrating the issuance of our very first software patent. This is especially so since patent trolling as a business model has been making news in the software industry in recent years. I now believe startups should think about patents strategically from an asset point of view and as a means for defense.
Let Me Explain Our Position
We are building technologies aimed at disrupting incumbents in the Business Intelligence (BI) industry. One of the most critical features that a BI platform can offer customers is the ability to deliver self service, ad-hoc reporting capabilities — there are several problems in the way it’s done today which is the raison d’etre for our startup to exist, however that is a topic for another day.
To deliver effective ad-hoc reporting, these platforms must generate effective multi-pass queries that can run natively on target data sources. This specific technology and other related capabilities has been the subject of many lawsuits in the BI industry, see this and this.
In our platform, we invented a way to run vastly superior multi-pass SQL queries by eliminating unnecessary data further upstream. We essentially analyze your entire report request, apply a boolean algebra algorithm to rewrite the original filter criteria to reduce the total amount of data processed; thus speeding up the overall report execution. Many BI tools require that the end user manually determine how to efficiently run this sort of query, whereas our technology can determine an efficient strategy automagically. You can read the actual patent here.
We spent months on this. For one it has been a pain point in my past experience especially when you are running customer segmentation analysis on big data sources (TB+), and two we knew we needed to make improvements in this space to ward off any lawsuits.
4 Months from Start to Actual Patent Issuance
We are still blown away by how fast this process went. We were fortunately introduced to some great Patent attorneys by Andy Klingenstein, one of our angels. They worked quickly and closely with us to effectively build a patent application and they were knowledgeable on ways to fast track startup patents. Here is a document list of steps we took to expedite the process:
- Find a great Patent attorney who has worked on software patents with startups
- Answer their questions quickly and help attorneys draw necessary diagrams. PPT or hand drawn sketches will work. They will then standardize and clarify. If you don’t help it will take many more iterations.
- Pay the extra $2K to fast track your applications. See this
- Thoroughly review your patent application with your team as soon as the draft is ready. It is extremely boring, but the longer you wait the worse it will feel.
- Finally, do not be overly broad or too narrow with your application. The broader you go the more iterations you will have with the patent office adding to delays and costs. If you go too narrow, then you lose some protection. This is where a great attorney can really guide you.
When and What should you Patent
My opinion here is strictly around software and better suited for seed stage companies. Obviously, you should not waste time, money, and energy patenting trivial things. The younger your startup is, the narrower and specific its patent targets should be. Trust me, preparing a patent application will take precious time away from your busy startup. So be really selective here.
- Key algorithms that are novel in a space that is litigious is definitely a candidate for patents.
- Innovations that are novel, not obvious, and likely copied by incumbents. Yeah that is broad, so you really need to understand your value prop. Although I wish I could give you our own examples, but they are not ready for public consumption.
Finally, you should start the patent application process before you broadly make the patent targets available to the public. This is kind of a gray area since you may want to talk about your tech to potential customers. We never specifically discussed the algorithms to our early customers, but described the end result of the technology at a high level while the patent application was underway.
My lawyer suggested I let you know that I’m not a lawyer and not qualified to give anyone legal advice. Please do not consider any of the above as legal advice or anything that can get me into trouble :).