My friends, wife, and even a partner, are all urging me to at least apply for a patent to discourage others from attempting to implement similar and/or competing software.
Is this a worthwhile exercise? Does it actually discourage anyone from attempting to implement a similar idea?
I would advise against getting a patent. We initially thought about getting a patent for our software product, but decided against it because of the following reasons:
In my opinion, the only time it may make sense to get a patent is if you are planning on getting VC funding, because this is something they look for.
You can get a provisional patent, which only costs about $100 to get. But it only lasts for a year, and is pretty much worthless unless you plan on following up with an actual patent filing. My advice is to not waste your time on either.
Also see these other patent related questions:
Filing a Patent What are the particulars of registering a software patent? To what extent are algorithms patentable, esp. in the US and Europe? How can startup be ready to defend IP/Patents if/when a competitor does infringe? How do you protect the key features of your product without a patent? Should I Bypass a Patent Search at this Stage of Product Development? There are lots more questions on this site about patents, just search for the patent tag.
will the $100 provisional for a year, deter any possible competition from entering the field? I'm not necessarily looking to litigate with anyone, but use it as a way of deterrence?The short answer is no, not in the long run.
The long answer: Claiming patent pending may deter a fraction of the people that would otherwise "infringe" on your patent. The problem is that it will not deter everyone, so you are back at having to spend tens of thousands of dollars to defend your patent. The reason it won't deter everyone is:
Think of it this way, obtaining an actual real patent doesn't deter everyone from infringing on someone's patent. We know this because patent lawsuits exist. So why would we expect a $100 provisional patent to deter everyone?
If all you are looking for is a 1 year head start, go ahead and get it, if it'll make you feel better. Just realize that after that 1 year, all bets are off, and you have absolutely no claim to it. Also, don't expect it to deter everyone from copying your software. You may luck out, and not have anyone copy it during that 1 year timeframe, but that doesn't mean it had anything to do with the provisional patent. It could just be that no one is interested in that right now, which means you would have been fine without the provisional patent.
EDIT 2: I just ran across this blog post on Provisional Patents. I thought it might be useful if you decide to pursue it.
I hope this helps!
In addition to Zuly's excellent comment above, I would add that provisional patent applications aren't even published by the USPTO, so ANY deterrence value resulting from one would have to come from your own publication/marketing of the idea. But that in itself is counterproductive especially you want to keep your idea under wraps. The use cases for provisionals are generally for those who are pitching to investors and/or those who have the legal resources to challenge infringement (and reap substantial reparations).
All that said, the process of writing the provisional patent can help you flesh out your idea and serve as a proxy/blueprint for your software product or business plan. Balance the time spent on this kind of planning/designing with actually producing and developing your product!