Wachovia Corp. is seeking to patent technology it developed in a document imaging service for corporate customers.
Experts said the bank's action is part of a tidal wave of patent applications from financial services companies that want to take advantage of last summer's loosening of regulations governing software patents.
"There is going to be an increase in the number of patents pending for software," said Barbara Smiley, a consultant at the Tower Group in Wellesley, Mass., "and a lot of those will be from financial services firms."
Wachovia executives said they want to protect a multimillion-dollar investment in proprietary software and banking applications for the Wachovia Connection Image Workstation.
The workstation gives corporate customers the ability to view and manipulate images of checks or documents affecting their cash management accounts.
Wachovia executives declined to be more specific about which components of the workstation they seek to patent.
"We had a sense that we have something of value here," said Walter E. Leonard, executive vice president of Wachovia Operational Services Corp. "We have the ability to produce a product and do it in a way that is unique in the marketplace."
Several financial services companies file patent applications regularly. Citicorp, for example, holds multiple patents for products ranging from automated teller machine software to electronic commerce technology.
However, more banks have begun filing applications since last summer, according to Jack B. Hicks, a partner in Rhodes, Coats & Bennett, Greensboro, N.C. Mr. Hicks' firm specializes in intellectual property law.
Patenting a technology has two advantages: It can give a company exclusive use of a particular technology, or it can let the company collect royalties from others who use it.
By announcing its intentions, Wachovia could be warning potential competitors not to develop similar systems, Mr. Hicks said.
Mr. Leonard said Wachovia has no immediate plan to license its technology to others, should its patent be granted.
Consultants said Wachovia's announcement thus appears to be two parts defense to one part marketing.
"They believe they have a great idea," said Ms. Smiley of Tower Group, "and they think the best thing to do is control the market for it."
Wachovia can expect to wait one to three years for a ruling on its application, said Mr. Hicks, who helped the bank file for its patent.
The application process is arduous, he said. Typically, it starts with making sure no patent has yet been issued for the same technology. The back end of the process involves a filing with the government meticulously documenting the uniqueness of the product for which protection is sought.
Patent seekers usually make several claims for protection, said Mr. Hicks. He added that a patent may be granted for all the claims or for part of them. A patent is good for 20 years.
Consultants expect many more banks to seek patent protection in coming years, especially innovators in the areas of home banking and electronic cash.