You are an expert mobile developer or a phenomenal UX designer, right? (Oh, of course, you are both. Our bad.)
For the last several months, you’ve slaved and away to build the killer app that the world has been waiting for.
You spent countless hours planning, designing, building, fixing, tweaking, and now you’ve launched it. You, and your app, have arrived.
But there’s one big problem.
You were very busy, and so you didn’t first thoroughly investigate or learn how to protect yourself through copyright, ownership, and Intellectual Property laws and best practices. Now, here you are two days post launch, and some con-artist developer overseas has copied your app’s look, function and even mimicked your app’s “secret sauce”. This jerk has replicated exactly the colors, copy, and even ripped off your app’s name. One week later, you see two more copycat apps. And from the looks of things, people are downloading and buying them, as much if not more often, than yours.
This situation would suck. And it happens in real life, often.
So how do you get started learning what you need to know to protect yourself?
It can be seem like an intimidating process, but it doesn’t have to be.
First and foremost, speaking to an IP lawyer to seek advice and ensure your design, development and launch process goes smoothly is a great start (and something you SHOULD do). This will help you so much as you go through all your options.
Otherwise, in order to protect your app from copy cats and start yourself off on the right footing, pay attention to these 10 things every developer must know about IP before launching an app.
1. Plan Early
The trick is to start before the development process. Coming up with your intellectual property strategy should start in the development phase before the conception of your app or even your company. Get up a plan and running quickly by going the early route, so you can strategize as soon as possible. It’s a fast-paced world out there, and getting copyrights or other protections on your work will help you secure your product as quickly as possible.
Copyrights are the easiest, fastest, and cheapest way to start protecting your IP, but they are the most lightweight option. A copyright only protects your content — source code, images, copy, etc. — and not your ideas. This means it can only protect over exact duplicates. Getting around anything else may need more robust options, such as trademarks or patents.
A trademark protects your brand image. Namely, your logo or tagline. You can file for a registered trademark if you want to keep the integrity of your app without worrying about other developers taking your brand and creating a similar logo, name, or tagline.
Patents offer the most potent protection and covers everything including your original ideas and the app functionality. Powerful protection comes with a hefty price, and also a timely setup process up to three years. It’s best to file patents only when you are in it for the long haul and can think long-term, or are secure in the future of your app. Because of the lengthy course, only seek patents after a year of the app being launched to the public. Your app patent has a better chance of approval if you have a truly innovative, new, and groundbreaking idea that’s repeatable in other settings.
5. Design Patents
Another type of patent, the design patent, is a cheaper and less time intensive option
than its umbrella counterpart. Similar to a trademark, it can protect the visual features of your app such as icon sets or screens.
6. Trade Secrets
A trade secret is data, analytics, strategies or information that an app developer might have as a competitive advantage. It must be maintained as a secret, like a valuable “secret sauce”, for a trade secret to function properly. Make sure to consider what are your apps or businesses trade secrets and keep those tightly controlled.
7. Works Made for Hire
When an app is created by an employee of a company within his or her job description, it is considered a “works made for hire”, and the employee, not the employer, is considered the owner with legal rights as an author.
Tip: Because this only applies to copyrights, be sure to look at whether your agreements state the employer owns any intellectual property creating by team members during their employment. Here are some forms to help.
8. Independent Contractors
If you are seeking outside support for app development, rather than in-house options, you must have the independent contractor sign a contract that states the ownership of the app to you, the employer. If this is not done in writing the developer will legally own the app he or she created.
Be careful when your developers decide to pull from open source code resources. It is necessary for you, and your team, to know which types of use licenses apply, and know that some can possibly become problematic for you down the line. This matters whether or not you want your app to be open source itself. While it’s safer to start from scratch, if you do use open-source code inside your app, be sure to research the different use license types and be aware of the licenses that apply to the repositories where your code comes from.
10. Moonlighters and Freelancers
Sometimes, you may have people working on your app who have full-time jobs on top of their “side project”. If this happens, one thing you can do is ask about and ideally check out their employers’ agreements to make sure they can’t claim any of the work, especially if the employer is in competition to your business or niche. Honesty is the best policy, so have these conversations with everyone early involved, and often. And always, work with people you can trust!
Stop the Copycats
Consider the above 10 concepts a basic primer on intellectual property from a layman, but we’d be remiss not to emphasize that everyone should consult an IP lawyer to delve deeper in any or all areas. It will be worth every penny.
With real deal IP know-how on your side, and working in your favor, you’re on the path to ensuring your app project starts successfully and securely. And if you take these actions, you can feel more confident that no copycat developers out there are going to have an easy time messing with your app plans again.
Disclaimer: The information provided herein presents general information and should not be relied upon as legal advice when analyzing and resolving a specific legal issue. If you have specific questions regarding a particular fact situation, please consult with competent legal counsel about the facts and laws that apply.