I'm laying the groundwork for what might ostensibly be considered a 'Web 2.0' startup. While I think that I might have some protectable IP, I think that these are not necessarily fundamental to the operation of the business and may be easily circumvented. However, I'm going to protect my creativity to the greatest extent possible.
I know I can file some provisional patents early in the process. Has anyone filed provisional patents and then gotten counsel involved, as opposed to having counsel file the provisional patents as well? I don't want to be penny-wise and pound foolish, but am curious if anyone has gone this route and was glad they did (or wished they hadn't).
EDIT - I sometimes have my doubts as to whether the 'high level' concepts of a lot of Web 2.0 businesses are even patentable. Even the term '2.0' implies prior art! While I think that a lot of the underlying approaches / applied algorithms are patentable, and certainly a company like Google has a lot to protect, I see lots of startups for YAVS (yet another video site) and they certainly can't be getting funded on protectible IP - or can they? Ok, enough of the rant...
I did exactly what you are talking about - created the provisional patent myself (used Nolo's books as a guide) and then (when we had funding) got counsel to manage and expedite the patent review process. Worked for us - we got the patent.
Researching the Prior Art is an important task - and while it helped me understand what's out there, it can be really difficult trying to isolate every single claim in the initial provisional patent. Of course, if you see a weakness in your patent, you can attempt to file follow on patents to cover any exposure / gaps, but that is best left to the professionals.
My advice is to skip all that patent stuff.
If and when you want to get a patent, you get to claim the date you first used the method in commerce. If the patent is challanged in court, you'll have to prove the date you first used it whether or not you filed anything on any given date, so there's no advantage there.
Patents waste tons of time and money. What are you trying to gain? Not protection from competition I hope; surely you realize that competition in the world of software isn't stopped by patents...
I agree with Jason that a patent may be a waste of time and money, especially if it isn't a core part of your business.
For a period of years companies tried to patent everything, in part to protect themselves against violating other patents, but hopefully the US Supreme Court will change the rules and invalidate most software-only patents.
Just make certain that your company is very agile, able to adapt to changes in the market, and you may find that what you wanted to patent is not even being used later.
I think once you apply for a patent you may find that being something you don't want to move away from, due to the patent application, and you may find that your will be better off if you make a major change. For example, look at how Twitter has adapted to their users, it has moved beyond what I expect they envisioned.