There have been plenty of great mobile apps in recent years that have gone on to be huge successes. Some could say that app development is in its ‘golden age’ right now. The app market is huge, and by the end of next year, there will be almost 2 billion smartphone users worldwide and not surprisingly by 2017, the app market will be worth $77 billion.
With the world becoming more globalised and connected by the internet, what this means as an app developer is that you can now sell your app by the millions all over the world. The fact that there have been so many app successes of late means app developers are moving fast to create the next big app.
However it is difficult to come with a great app like Uber or Whatsapp and that is why when you browse through the Google play store or Apple app store, you will find app clones, monetising off the ideas of someone else’s good idea.
If you currently have a great app idea or you have already created your app, you might want to know your legal rights to your app. Here are 7 ways to legally protect your app:
1. Get a non disclosure agreement
Creating an app isn’t a one man job, you’ll need a lot of brain power to get it off the ground. You’ll probably need to get some help from a freelance app developer who already have the technical skills to build something great. But how do you make sure that they keep the project confidential and that they don’t steal your idea after they’ve helped you?
Firstly, you could keep it vague without giving away the specifics by talking about the functionalities. For example, you can tell your app developer that you want your app to process PayPal payments, you want pictures to appear which you can swipe away or you want maps installed.
However the problem with not telling your freelance app developers the whole vision of your app is that they won’t be able to build your app the way you want it to built. It’s better for your app business if you can speak freely about your vision rather than hiding the small details in the fear that your idea will be stolen.
The best way to do this is for you both to sign a non disclosure agreement before they start working on your project. An NDA is a legal contract between two people that states what information will be shared between them and what information will not be shared with other people. The great thing about a non disclosure agreement is that you will have peace of mind that your idea or trade secrets are kept confidential.
2. Start building your app
Having an idea or concept is one thing but building it is another. Once you’ve got the code down, no-one can outright steal it from you. Copyright law can only protect how an idea expresses itself, it doesn’t protect the idea itself. That is why if you have a great app idea, the best thing for you to do is to start coding it and saving it onto your computer.
3. Get your freelancer to sign over the copyrights to you
Although building your app is a good way to protect it, sometimes you don’t have the skills to write the code or design it and you need to bring someone on board. Since your contractors are the ones who are essentially ‘creating’ your app, technically from a copyright point of view they own the copyright. This is why you need to get them to sign over the copyrights to you once they’ve finished the project for you. That way if your app is a huge success, they can’t come after you claiming to have copyright to it.
4. Get a trade mark for your app’s name or logo
If you browse through the app store, you will find plenty of clones. These clones could be infringing trade mark but they are not infringing copyright. Alternatively they could be infringing copyright but not infringing trade mark.
The good news is that it is easy to make a copyright infringement claim if you have two things: copyright ownership and proof that the defendant had access to copy the app. The first is easy to demonstrate in a legal battle if you have all the necessary paperwork. However it is the second part that is tricky to prove. How can you prove that they directly copied you?
5. Consider a patent application
The general rule, in the UK and the EU, is that computer software are not patentable. However there exists a few instances where a computer software has been patented. So in exceptional circumstances, your app or part of it may fulfil the necessary requirements to get a patent. The best way to find out is by getting in touch with an patent attorney to see if your app meets the requirements to get a patent.
6. Pursue the developers who infringe your work
If someone is copying your app, take action against your infringers. Pursuing people who outright copy you will deter other people from doing the same.
Although you may have the copyright to the original app, if someone was to take your idea and create the same app game and add additional features to it such as different characters or different scenes then your app and their app starts to become differentiated. Both sides can have solid arguments in a legal battle.
In 2013, the Flappy Bird founder decided to take down his app which led to app opportunists to create clones of his app and make money from his idea. At its hype, copycat developers uploaded 60 Flappy Bird apps a day, equivalent to one clone every 24 minutes. These copycat developers would argue that they added new elements to the game and therefore it is a new game altogether.
Google have 1.6 million apps in their play store and they don’t have someone who checks for quality or copyrights when apps get uploaded. Your app could be cloned and uploaded to the play store without you realising it. It would only be taken down by Google if someone flags it as fraudulent. This means that they can profit from your original app before it is removed. If you have the copyright and trade mark ownerships, it should be easier to have clone apps taken down.
7. Protect yourself from infringing on the work of others
A lot of the time we are inspired by the works of others and from what we’ve seen already in the play store. The best way to avoid infringing on the works of others is to try to be as original as possible. Although Flappy Bird made lots of money in the time that it was up and Uber is dominating the cab industry, try not to just create what is popular at the minute. Instead create something original that fills a real need and try to avoid replicating the business models of other apps.