FORTUNE Small Business:

A guide to what you can (and can't) patent

You're out of luck if you want to patent a website - but you can copyright it.

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(FORTUNE Small Business) -- Dear FSB: Can you patent or copyright an idea for a website?

- Theresa Nguyen, Brooklyn, N.Y.

Dear Theresa: "The short answer to the question is you can't patent an idea," said Jennifer Rankin Byrne, spokeswoman for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

If your idea is to, for example, open an online pet store, you can't patent or copyright it. However, if what you're looking to patent is what's considered a "business method," you might be able to, she said.

People have been issued patents for technologies like one-click shopping and other business-game-changing ideas, but there are several criteria that an idea must meet to be eligible.

"It would have to be some new, novel technology or old technology that's used in a new way. It would have to be representing something very innovative and new. It would have to be something more than a concept. The person applying for the patent would have to explain in a very detailed way how it would work," Rankin Byrne said.

Federal law dictates eligibility for patents, and to receive one, ideas must meet four requirements: the invention must have utility; it must be novel; it must not have been obvious to a person having ordinary skill in the art at the time the invention was made, and it must be thoroughly explained and documented so that someone else would be able to make it.

If your idea meets these criteria, you can apply to the U.S. Patent and Trademark office for a patent.

Copyright, on the other hand, deals with content, and even on the Internet original work has copyright protection.

"Even if the website isn't eligible for a patent, the original authorship appearing on a website may be protected by copyright. This includes writings, artwork, photographs, and other forms of authorship protected by copyright," Rankin Byrne said.

The procedure for registering the contents of a website can be found here: Copyright Registration for Online WorksTo top of page

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