Innovation wars: Protecting your product when patents can’t

A question every founder should ask is: what’s to stop someone else creating the exact same product as me? What’s to stop them copying it? The answer to both, increasingly, is very little. There are certain legal protections you should implement as best practice. But there’s a third question that’s arguably more important: how can I do things so well that copycats don’t affect me?

As tech becomes more replicable, patents become less meaningful. 

Not only are patents prohibitively expensive for young startups, they’re increasingly hard to secure on software. With most tech startups now classified as SaaS, most enter the market with little-to-no legal protection from poaching. It’s every founder for themselves.

Where before there were barriers to entry in terms of technical knowhow, there are now no-code/low-code tools, cheap outsourcing, even purchasable plugin clones that allow you to download your very own version of Tinder/Uber/Deliveroo. 

Competitors are no longer niche numbers of brilliant minds. They’re anyone with a small budget, a search engine, and some time on their hands.

So how do you protect yourself when anyone can parrot your app using an app?

Spoiler: you can’t.    

Honour among thieves 

Perhaps the theft itself is not the problem. Or that theft is so omnipresent in business, you can’t let it be a problem.

When Steve Jobs accused Bill Gates of stealing what we now know as a “desktop” from Apple, Bill said: “It’s more like we both had this rich neighbour named Xerox and I broke into his house to steal the TV and found that you had already stolen it.” 

You can cry copycat all you like, but chances are, you weren’t the first to have your idea, and you definitely won’t be the last.

It’s like an egg and spoon race. A hundred people in your space are probably racing towards the same MVP as you. Run too fast or launch too soon and you’ll crash. But run too slowly and you’ll be pipped to the post. 

Is there anything you can do to protect your egg?

(Un)protected by law

You can be a non-technical founder. You can use no-code tools. You can outsource. But in all these cases, you don’t own your code. 

When it comes to third parties like creative agencies or outsourced developers, make sure all rights to work they’ve produced are reassigned to you, and don’t permit their use of your IP without a well-written agreement in place to govern the relationship.

Once you have your code, copyright it. As a general rule, where patents are for inventions, copyright is for software. But remember, copyright only protects the actual code from being duplicated – not the idea. If someone else can figure out or reverse-engineer your product, they can still compete. 

You also have trademarking on your side. Patents are for inventions, copyright is for software, trademark is for brand assets. You can ™ your brand mark, visual assets, and taglines cheaply. Again, this protects your brand, but not your product.  

Registering your domain name as soon as you have a company name is also a no brainer. Same with securing Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok usernames and getting verified where relevant.

The final tool in your legal arsenal is Non Disclosure Agreements. You can try to issue these to anyone you discuss your business with. You should issue them to team members, contractors, developers, and so on. 

Investors generally won’t sign NDAs, at least not in the early stages, and it doesn’t look great to ask. They hear dozens of ideas a month and it’s an easy way to end up with crossed legal wires. If nothing else, you’re asking them to spend time and resources looking through it and getting legal advice.

Challenge accepted

In saturated Red Ocean markets, challengers abound. The whole idea is to catch trends, copy, and compete. You won’t find Uber whining about Bolt trying to copy them. It just works tirelessly to stay ahead. 

Uber HQ is also not worried about the fact you can just buy clone Uber plugins online. Anyone can do it. Very few can execute it.

And that’s where the devil is: in the execution. It’s who dares wins.

Ask anyone on the street if they have a business idea. Most will say “actually, for years I’ve thought about X” or “I’ve always wanted to build X”. 

The difference is that 99% of them won’t get round to starting up. Those who do may never secure funding. And those who get that far can fail for 100 different reasons

Similarly, launching a great product and then providing horrible customer service is a great way to leave the gate open to competition. So is launching a great product then getting lazy with iterating and improving.

Keep at it, keep customers happy, and keep innovating.

If others follow, you’re not a victim. You’re validated.

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Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

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