I have an idea for a website (I know, don’t we all ;))
Is it possible to patent it? The patent would be for the way the website works, i.e. the service it provides.
If so, where do I need to go for advice (pre lawyers) and how much (approx) will it cost.
A big part of patents that people often forget is enforcement. Just because you have a patent issued doesn’t mean people won’t compete, rather you have to sue them, and from what I recall of my patent law classes (those are pre-law, not a lawyer, only related to one), you are obligated to protect it or you risk diluting it. Patents aren’t cheap and defending them just adds to the cost. Business method patents are especially costly as they tend to be more subjective and easily stepped on causing more research upfront, more defense down the road.
How much getting a patent will cost is dependant on a variety of factors, including the technicality of the patent, the similarity of any competition to research, and where you want to hold that patent - each country works with patents differently - do you want just US? How about countries in Europe or Asia, etc?
Some countries don’t allow software patents, whilst others do - you say the patent would be for how the website works, but is that a small piece of software, or a massive piece of infrastructure.
As always, you should go and talk to a patent attorney or IP law firm to get a real understanding of what is involved to protect the rights you want to retain. They should be able to offer you advice on how to exploit that patent as well.
Do note that prior art could prevent you from being able to register a patent, so don’t disclose what you want to patent to anyone but the lawyer(s) you have on retainer, so you would be protected by legal privilege.
It also depends on how unique the item in question is (and whether the implementation in itself is unique enough to qualify). Getting a patent is a very expensive process (especially if you want the worldwide rights to it) and unless you can guarantee your idea is worth that much, it’s probably not worth getting the patent. I’m not trying to say you’re idea isn’t going to be successful, but I would be cautious because your million dollar idea (like so many others), may not succeed if you can’t find the audience or if it’s simply not as good of an idea as you think. And for such an expensive thing (we’re potentially talking in several thousands of dollars here) I would hold off the patent until you get grounded and can be sure that your process is so unique it won’t conflict (as in when the thing is built).
PS: I am not a lawyer
You should also keep in mind that it is not possible to patent “software” in every country, for example in Europe its very difficult to get a patent on a “software”, its possible through a loophole, but even if you get it through there the chance of it actually holding up in a court case is extremely slim.
In addition as Ted mentions, after you have spent approx 1000-3000 dollars per country you want to apply for a patent in you would need to defend your patent in the same countries.
No offense, but the chance for your idea to really be unique and something that has not been created/thought of before is very slim. In my opinion you will be better off relying on the copyright (which you get for free when you create the software) and instead pour the funds you would spend on the patents into development.