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If you have an idea for a smartphone app, how does a patent protect you from others writing the same or similar smartphone app? And when does a patent fall short of protecting your idea?

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I can give you a general answer, but not specific legal advice.

As ever, the answer includes "maybe" and "it depends."

In the United States, the law about patenting features of computer programs is going through some changes. Generally speaking, if your invention meets the other criteria for patentability (e.g., it is a new, non-obvious invention with some useful purpose), AND if it relates to some technological improvement or invention, you might be able to get patent protection. For example, if you "invented" a new way of tracking golf scores by having the smartphone's camera film you as you go about the golf course, you MIGHT be able to patent that. On the other hand, if you "invented" an app that allows you to enter your golf scores, that's not likely to be seen as an invention, because it's just doing something we've always done and moving it to a computer.

Anyway, the protection you get depends on the claims of any patent that issues. For whatever functionality or system is claimed, the patent will give you the exclusive right to that functionality or system.

If you get very "broad" claims (e.g., "keeping score using a camera") then you might have protection against anything that does that, no matter how they do it. If you get "narrower" claims (e.g., "finding an arm in an image, measuring the rate at which it changes position, determining if the next swing takes place using a putter or a driver, etc...") then you are likely only going to have protection against someone doing the same or nearly the same thing, but not much protection against someone else using a completely different way of keeping score using a camera (e.g., by tracking how many times the ball moves).

If you have particular concerns, I'd recommend calling an attorney for a quick consult.

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