I would like to start a niche social media website but I have no knowledge of programming. I do have business knowledge but that doesn't help me in the actual creation of this website. I don't have the money to use a developer at all so I have looked into Ning which I think would be a good fit. My question is: If I create my website off of Ning, can I still patent and own all rihts to it?
What actually would you like to patent here?
OK, we all have learned that the patent system in the US allows one to patent showing and hiding scrollbars and such. But what would be your invention which you could patent if you use a ready-to-use social network? Please read more on patents, because I think you mix them up with copyright.
When it comes to copyright you need to take a deep look into the terms of services of Ning. I don't know them, but some providers do have rights on whatever you do in their service.
But basically you can easily own a trademark. There are multiple service providers who help you registering one. If you create content yourself you have moral rights on it.
So my advise is you learn more about patents and the difference to copyright/trademarks. Then I would consult a lawyer if Nings ToS match your business case. If they do not match and you are willing to invest some bucks, you sometimes are better to go with a customized standard software (you probably need to pay for hosting, the developer who customizes and most likely the price for a license of the software if your choice, if not open source).
It's expensive, difficult and time consuming to actually patent something - especially something web / technology related.
In this case there is probably nothing unique to patent. You aren't inventing any new processes or anything unique enough to be patentable, just reusing an existing system to make a niche social network.
In general in the web startup world the best strategy is to find that niche and just remain the best at it. If it's a good idea people will copy it as Living Social and tons of others did to Groupon. Companies my patent very specific pieces of their overall system on how they do something but it's difficult.
I certainly wouldn't let this be a factor in you moving forward with your startup. If you have a cool idea and can do it with Ning give it a shot.
However, Ning owns it's platform so you won't be able to take it else where or ever disconnect from them. You may want to look at something like:
http://www.boonex.com/dolphin Which is an open source social network that may give you more flexibility, freedom and independence then Ning. There are tons of other available social networks, I just use this as an example.