Legal Options that Protect Software Developers

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Software development is a cutthroat business; as soon as an original program hits the market, a nearly identical program is vying for recognition.  There are several options developers can consider in order to protect their work.  Copyrights, patents, and software development agreements make it harder for competitors to run off with your original idea.

A copyright lets the world know that you are the owner of an original work, whether it is song, a written work, a web page, or software program.  Copyright law automatically protects your work as soon as it is created; there is no need to apply for a copyright, though copyrighted work should be clearly marked.  The international sign for copyright (©) will suffice. Copyright law allows you to profit from your original work and protects you from copyright infringement.  Registering a copyright further protects your work by providing a public record and allowing you to sue for infringement.  Registering is easy and inexpensive.  However, while a simple copyright will protect the original concept behind your program, it will not protect the nuts and bolts of the program: i.e. algorithms, original code, output layouts, etc.  To fully protect your software, you will need to apply for a patent, which is a binding legal contract that will inhibit competitors from stealing technology used to create your software.

Software is only recently patentable in the United States.  (Software is not patentable in Europe.)  In 1998, the federal court rejected a claim that an invention was not patentable as a mathematical algorithm.  Between 1998 and 2008, all software was considered patentable.  Recently, knowing which business inventions are patentable and which are not became murky.  The Bilski case in the federal courts made software patent law more ambiguous, thanks to the ongoing debate on the economic ramifications of software patents.  Finally, in June of 2010, the court rendered software patents legal.  Today, a patent is the strongest way to protect developers from competitors while automatically increasing the value of their product.

Obtaining a patent can be a long and arduous process, which is why many contact a corporate lawyer who specializes in patents.  A patent is an investment; the initial cost is between $5000 and $10,000, and it will cost thousands more to maintain.  Start the patent application process by visiting the United States Patent and Trademark website.

Developers may strengthen their copyright by having their clients sign a software development agreement.  The agreement will determine whether or not you maintain full rights to your copyright, or whether you relinquish rights to the client.  There are varying options in between these two scenarios that can be clarified in the agreement.  This is an inexpensive way to make sure your interests are protected when seeking to profit from an original software program.

In the long run, there is no absolute way to prevent someone from stealing your software.  Not only that, but a copyright, a patent, or even a software development agreement does not guarantee that you will always maintain full rights to your original idea.  However, they are tools that make these scenarios less likely, and investors like to know their investment as protected as it can get.

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