For example I have an idea to serve customer request which lets businesses handle a greater variety of customers or an idea which helps customers achieve what they want easier and in a shorter time. Can these ideas be patented?
There are several characteristics that a patent office will look at to determine whether the invention is patentable. These are:
- Inventive Step/Non-Obviousness
- Industrial Applicability/Utility
It should also have a patentable subject matter. You can search your innovation in the existing patent (Google Patent Search or http://patft.uspto.gov/netahtml/PTO/index.html/) list. If there is no existing patent, published application, or other published document predating your application, then yes it is patentable. But it must pass all predefined test to get patent.
This answer relates to two issues. First, "is an idea patentable" and second, "what is an idea". Let's start with unpacking the first issue.
Can you get a patent on an idea? On a most basic level, you cannot get a patent on an idea. You get a patent which covers certain implementations of the idea. This sounds like a quibble, but in the US, for example, if you did somehow manage to cover all possible implementations of an idea, the patent can be found invalid for that reason.
Moving one level up, Can I get a patent on a method implemented using a computer? The answer is sometimes yes and sometimes no and depending on the country and the technology. The USPTO is quite confused and the issue is evolving. This link is a list of analyzed examples posted by the USPTO, some considered eligible and some not.
There is lots more where that comes from, like here. But the answer is often.
The JPO (Japan) is clear that one might get protection for business and game related ideas, see especially page 7, section (2). The test is does the invention involve "creation of a technical idea utilizing the laws of nature".
The EPO (Europe) has a special trick where the business problem being solved is ignored, leading many inventions to being trivial.
Can I get a patent on my new system? One job of a patent professional is to figure out how to get you a patent in spite of the obstacles placed by the law and the prior art. So the answer is usually, Yes.
At the practical level one should ask: Can I get a useful patent (to help my business goals)?
This is a very fact-specific question and involves a multiprong analysis, including at least:
(a) How and where IP protection would help your business – so you should understand your business and your competitors, and
(b) What IP protection is possible - taking into account prior art, law, inventions.
Idea vs. implementation This issue is at the heart of the "abstract idea" problem in the US, regarding software related inventions. Personally, I find that it is a continuum, as you add more detail, you go from a vision, to an abstract idea, to a general implementation, to a very specific and complete implementation.
If you read the law, you get a patent on a process or a machine, etc., not on the idea of one. When drafting a patent application you want to claim as abstractly as you can get away with but describe in far more detail. One way of thinking about this is: If somebody copies your idea but provides a different implementation, do you think your patent should have covered it? This is a significant dilemma in patents: The patent gives away the idea and the patent protects only some implementations thereof.
A patent is like a cookbook. Somebody reading it should be able to follow the recipe and get the result. But the law intends that the same somebody be inspired by the cookbook and only gives you protection for the particular recipes actually described in the cookbook. In patent terms, protection is only for recipes or families of recipes as described and some amount of equivalents and recipes with additional ingredients, but not for other recipes that were inspired by reading the cookbook but use different ingredients.
If you describe and claim "f=a+b", the patent possibly will not cover "f=b+a", even though they are mathematically equivalent.
You file a patent on a method of filtering out customers by age and somebody else filters by shoe size or height (a reasonably good proxy for child/adult distinction), is it the same idea?
(1) If you ask a patent attorney to file a patent for your implementation, he will. Possibly, to your detriment.
(2) If you want to protect your idea, you need to identify it and in particular the abstract ideas behind the implementation, understand its (business) ramifications and protect all useful implementation(s), not just your own.
(3) You have to assume you will not figure out all the implementations or ramifications of your idea before you file. In fact, really understanding your idea can take years.
Patent laws are dependent on the jurisdictions in question. Your question does not explicitly state about which region (country) you are bothered about ? Whether do you want to know if this kind of an idea is patentable in America, Europe or Japan, etc. ? So taking a hypothetical case, the USPTO is quite liberal when compared to many other patent offices (which are more stringent about what qualifies for a patent). Your idea is essentially a business method, and hence it will be patentable in the USA. At the same time other stringent offices like EPO and IPO will not give you patents for such ideas because their patent laws explicitly state that abstract business methods are not patentable.