Can you patent a business idea/model?
July 10, 2011 3:25 PM   Subscribe

Can you patent a business idea/model? I read that you can't patent something vague like a "cowboy themed pizzeria" but what about things like, Netflix, Zipcar, etc?

Lets say I came up with the idea for the AAA road side assistance, in which the customer pays a yearly fee for the perks of having a free tow, key lock in, gas delivery etc. Can I patent the business model?
posted by Jofecopa to Work & Money (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Sounds like you can. Also, generally speaking, it sounds like a dick thing to do.
posted by wrok at 3:36 PM on July 10, 2011

I can't link to it, but if you go to this link from the US patent office and scroll down to 'what is a patent' it seems the answer is no.

What is a patent?

A patent cannot be obtained on a mere idea or suggestion. Patent applications are examined for both technical and legal merit.
posted by jourman2 at 3:40 PM on July 10, 2011

The short answer is that intellectual property law is complex and this question is best answered by a competent attorney.

The longer answer is: maybe.
posted by dfriedman at 3:45 PM on July 10, 2011

Generally speaking, no. But like most things in law - the real answer is "it depends."

Things you may want to look into
Business method patents
In re Bilski

And you may be able to get trade dress protection for your cowboy themed pizzeria. See Taco Cabana

Isn't IP law fun?
posted by Arbac at 3:45 PM on July 10, 2011

The line between "mere idea" and "business method" is pretty vague. The US patent office allowed Amazon to patent the idea of keeping billing information on file so that a product can be ordered and shipped with one click.
posted by Rhomboid at 3:46 PM on July 10, 2011

Agree with the above. Business-method patents, like Amazon's one-click do exist, but (supposedly) one of the tests a patent is supposed to pass is "non-obviousness"—that is, the idea would not be obvious to someone "skilled in the art." The one-click patent drew a lot of criticism because it does seem obvious.

Another key test for a patent is that it is in some way an improvement over prior art or in some way novel in comparison with prior art. Since AAA has been doing business for about 100 years, you've got a lot of prior art to contend with in your putative roadside-assistance patent, and you would need to bring something new to the table. I can imagine some patents some ancillary aspects of a roadside assistance program, eg, patenting a system where you have a smartphone app that lets you send a distress call, and that automatically dispatches the nearest tow truck. The fact that I tossed this idea off without really thinking about it or even being skilled in the art of roadside assistance means it should not pass the non-obvious test, but that has proven to be a low bar to get over.

Ideas cannot be patented—only implementations of ideas. That said, there are business-method patents where the "implementation" is nothing more than a flowchart and explicit description of what is involved in the process.
posted by adamrice at 4:16 PM on July 10, 2011

You can trademark your cowboy-pizza logo and name. Netflix was granted patent-protection for its business model in 2006. Zipcar is also patented it's reservation system. It's not the idea, but the way of delivering that idea that gets patented.
posted by Ideefixe at 6:07 PM on July 10, 2011

Zipcar does have competitors in the car-share idea, like Hertz, so obviously whatever patents they hold do not prevent the existence of similar businesses.
posted by fings at 6:51 PM on July 10, 2011

A business method is not the same as a business model. A business can have hundreds or thousands of methods… a method to run transactions over the wire, a method to handle customer service phone calls, a method to pick the lint from your navel, etc. A model is how the business intends to make money.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 7:06 PM on July 10, 2011

Lets say I came up with the idea for the AAA road side assistance, in which the customer pays a yearly fee for the perks of having a free tow, key lock in, gas delivery etc. Can I patent the business model?

Civil_Disobedient makes a good point. How you make money is probably not patentable. So this, even if you were the first one to come up with the idea, probably wouldn't be patentable. Because even if nobody ever had the idea to do this for cars, the idea of charging for a service is not a novel idea.

For something like Netflix, however, their idea might be patentable. Not "video by mail" or "video by streaming", but the specific processes by which this is put into effect.

So they would patent the algorithms that decide where the distribution centers will be located, the algorithms which decide recommendations, and (do they do this?) algorithms which decide how to shift inventory across the different distribution centers, versus purchasing new inventory.

For example, my grandfather had a patent on a bracket. He sold construction supplies (screws, brackets, forms, etc.) and realized there was a better way to attach metal structures (like quansit huts) to the concrete foundation. The patent describes the current state of the art, the proposed new solution, how it should be better, how it is manufactured, and how it is installed. And also how it is different enough from existing art to qualify as a new way of doing things.

Another example might be Carmax. You can't patent selling cars for a fixed price. But they might have been able to patent their method of determining buy and sell prices.
posted by gjc at 5:44 AM on July 11, 2011

Another one popped into mind. Burger King couldn't patent flame broiled burgers, but they could (and did, I believe) patent their conveyer-belt flame broiling machine. McDonald's (again, I think) had a patent on their Speedee Service System, which is how they turned the specific raw materials into a finished product.
posted by gjc at 5:47 AM on July 11, 2011

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