February is the month when many are in the mood for love. Stores are displaying red, heart shaped boxes of chocolate and bags of sugary conversation hearts. Couples are planning romantic date nights while millions of singles will be swiping, scanning, and looking for love on online dating apps. In the midst of swiping, however,  the average single probably does not consider if the dating app’s patents are influencing their chances at love.

Interestingly enough, dating apps are considered creative works and qualify for intellectual property protections.  Some sites, such as Tinder, have trademarked aspects of their site, including phrases such as, “It’s a Match!” and “Super Like.”  

Dating app patents also apply to the various technologies that people use to make that “love connection.” We’ll talk about some of these below. 

What is a Patent? 

First, what is a patent?  According to the United States Patent and Trademark Office, a “U.S. patent gives you, the inventor, the right to ‘exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling’ an invention or ‘importing’ it into the U.S.” 

There are different types of patents, including the following: 

  • Utility: inventing a new or improved and useful process, machine, article of manufacture, or composition of matter; 
  • Design: inventing a new ornamental design for a manufactured article; 
  • Plant: inventing or discovering and asexually reproducing any distinct and new variety of plant. 

Can Swiping Dating Apps Be Patented? 

Hundreds of swiping dating apps are available in the marketplace. What is the commonality? They are all looking for ways to provide users with more favorable matches. For example, Tinder is well known for its “swipe right” feature and the dating app has patented “matching process system and method.” 

The actual “swiping” action, however, is not what is patented, but instead it is a complex mechanism for profile matching based on receiving an indication of a preference for a particular user profile. The “swipe” is the indication, all of the steps together combine to make what was, at the time, a unique way to “match” with other users on the site. 

Tinder claimed Bumble, a newer dating site started by a former Tinder employee, infringed upon their intellectual property protections. Tinder’s lawyers, under parent company Match.com, argued that Bumble’s technology, which also included swiping to indicate desired matches, was too much like its own. (Bumble’s dating app had swipes, but women initiated first contact.) There was a big hullabaloo between the two companies, who also seemed to have some intertwined relationship baggage of their own, with Tinder at one point even seeking to purchase Bumble.  In the end, the two mutually agreed to end the litigation—no one is sure these exes have remained friends. 

Other dating apps, such as Zoosk and JDate, have had some success in patenting various technologies, including identifying nearby compatible users, as well as other “reciprocal” notification methods. A Supreme Court case, Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank Int’l, however,  has recently limited dating app patents. This case involved a patent application for computer technologies that also included abstract ideas, which are ineligible for patent protection. In the end, the court found that the patent in Alice was ineligible for intellectual property rights protection because the abstract ideas, despite being implemented with computer technology, were not enough to create something patentable.

This case is relevant to dating apps because many of the newer apps consist of an abstract idea, assisted by computer technology that isn’t new for all intents and purposes. For example, one new dating app suggests matches based on physical attributes of users, which is an existing recognition technology. Following the Alice case, several dating app patents have been recently invalidated.

Artificial Intelligence in Dating Apps  

Artificial intelligence (AI) has hit dating apps.  The big question is, will AI bring new patentable subject matter?  It is a difficult question to answer because many dating apps have already been using AI features to produce better matches. Some legal scholars argue that Alice applies here, and that AI simply is using abstract ideas with the same technology. New dating apps spring up all the time, though, and they try their hand at patenting their technologies. They are certainly hoping the United States Patent and Trademark Office will “swipe right” on their invention. 

Happy Valentine’s Day! 

The Michelson Institute for Intellectual Property, an initiative of the Michelson 20MM Foundation, provides access to empowering IP education for budding inventors and entrepreneurs. Michelson 20MM was founded thanks to the generous support of renowned spinal surgeon Dr. Gary K. Michelson and Alya Michelson. To learn more, visit 20mm.org.