Internet patents, also called business method patents, offer protection for conducting online business in a particular way. They may refer to software, data storage, communication, and information processing, as well as various other applications.

There's growing interest in internet patents, as evidenced by the increasing number of Internet-related applications submitted to the United States Patent and Trademark Office. The uptick in applications is coming primarily from corporations seeking to protect intellectual assets.

You'll find different estimates regarding the number of internet patents (due to how someone classifies patents), but experts estimate that patents granted in this category rose from 165 to 2,193 between 1995 and 1998.

An internet patent doesn't need to concern any of the following: 

  • Domain name system 
  • Internet protocol 
  • Other technical features

A patent might cover another aspect, such as a type of technology a person wanting to do business on the internet would need. This technology doesn't have to be a technical standard.

Differences Around the World

There is no single regime that governs the internet, and no one country governs all online activities. While different countries may agree on certain internet-specific regimes for technical features (including the adoption of certain uniform laws), each country prefers to keep its own specific laws.

People around the globe are different and hold diverse views on different matters. As an example, consider online gambling. Some countries find online gambling perfectly acceptable, while others find it unacceptable. Still others don't have a strong opinion in either direction. 

Countries also have different understandings related to privacy issues and requirements for protecting someone's personal information. Different counties now have, and probably always will have, laws that differ in relation to privacy, personal information protection, and online gambling.

Abiding by Local Laws

No matter which country someone lives in, the question of complying with that country's laws surrounding internet use is non-negotiable. This is especially true for anyone who wants to use the internet legally. However, in theory and in practice, the number of countries who take legal action against individuals may be limited.

One of the biggest reasons some people give for not complying with a country's laws regarding the internet is the fact that the Worldwide Web is widely available. The technical characteristics of the internet sometimes make it very difficult to limit an individual's actions or even identify with a good amount of reliability where a person using the internet is located. 

Tools related to location were developed, which led to the development of geoblocking tools. As people attempt to evade location, these blocking tools become more sophisticated. The number of geoblocking tools has increased, so identifying an individual's location has become harder to do.

Data Protection and Privacy

The growth of applicable laws that different countries develop related to the internet can be more troubling, depending on which area of the law is affected. One area that's a cause for concern is the protection of someone's personal information and privacy surrounding it. 

An individual who uses the internet to sell products or services (and who probably has analytic information related to users and traffic) will run into data protection laws. These laws vary by country, including nations in the EU. While EU countries have joined forces in harmonizing personal data protection laws, each country may have specific regulations regarding implementation. Entities that conduct business across various countries will have to comply with varying data protection laws.

Hypothetically, what if a person could patent an acceptable way to simultaneously comply with the varying laws across different countries as they relate to data privacy on the internet? Suppose, in addition, that he or she could claim the method in a broad enough way that covers all possible ways to achieve compliance with each country's privacy laws. If that happened, the person might be considered to own a patent on the internet itself. At the very least, he or she would own an enormous percentage of activity on the internet.

While it's true that no one can patent the internet, it is possible for individuals to patent online apps and other technology that can improve the user experience. These patents cover a wide range of internet activities, including everything from methods of downloading music to e-commerce sales.

If you need help with internet patents or just patents in general, you can post your legal need on UpCounsel's marketplace. UpCounsel accepts only the top 5 percent of lawyers to its site. Lawyers on UpCounsel come from law schools such as Harvard Law and Yale Law and average 14 years of legal experience, including work with or on behalf of companies like Google, Menlo Ventures, and Airbnb.