How to Legally Protect Your App Idea

Sometimes it seems like everything’s already been invented. There are countless mobile apps that make people’s lives easier. What else is there to create? 

But technology evolves rapidly, new requests come up, and fresh ideas appear. One day you will download another app that implements a simple and ingenious idea. This idea, of course, could have been on the minds of hundreds of developers, but only one brought it to life first. 

The market is competitive, which is a great incentive to improve the quality of the product and service. On the other side of the coin, rivals catch the wave of success and surf on the goodwill of promising developers. Each developer hopes its project will thrive, but the real picture becomes clear only after the launch: either the app gets thousands of downloads or it doesn’t. 

There’s another possible scenario: the app idea may be truly unique, but numerous clones appear right after the launch, diluting the success of the original product and intercepting its users. Not the kind of recognition the developer dreams of.

To prevent this, here’s a checklist to go through to better protect your app creation.

When Is the Right Time to Think About the Legal Side of App Protection?

Before you launch. It is not worth waiting for public appreciation of your app, then determining the need to protect it. This path is painful and expensive. Imagine having to prove that your app is actually yours, and you are the one who came up with the idea. In the world of mobile app development, treasure hunters act quickly, and you may be surprised by the speed at which clone apps appear.

The average user doesn’t care who the author of the original app is and will download the first one they come across. That’s the danger of app clones. Out of the blue, you lose users and, accordingly, profits. These losses are likely to exceed the cost of legal steps to prevent this situation.

An Idea Itself Is Not Subject to Intellectual Property Law Protection

Let’s start with this truth: your idea itself cannot be protected by a patent, copyright, or trademark. Intellectual property law protects a certain expression of this idea: program code, blueprint, flow map, interface design, and technical solution. Still, there are effective ways to protect your app idea even at the development stage.

Trademark Your App

The first thing the consumers interact with is brand attributes such as the name, logo, or slogan. Besides being the first impression of your app, these objects serve to distinguish your product from thousands of others. This is why one of the most popular ways to protect a mobile application is to trademark it. 

You cannot trademark an app itself, though many app elements are eligible to be a trademark, starting from the already mentioned name, logo, and slogan, as well as other elements like the app title, its attributes/functions, a character (e.g. a mobile game character, or an animal-symbol of a kids app), game currency, etc.

If you are not certain of why you need a trademark, here are the main benefits:

  1. A trademark can be registered before being used in commerce. Some jurisdictions (e.g. the U.S.) require proof of the actual use of the trademark (a screenshot from Google Play/App Store is usually enough for apps), but still, allow applications to be filed prior to use. This means you can apply as soon as you come up with the idea of an app name or your logo is ready.
  2. The procedure is relatively inexpensive and simple. A lot depends on the cost of the services of a trademark lawyer of course, but the price of registration pays off quickly due to its benefits.
  3. A trademark prevents others from using a confusingly similar name and logo for the same or similar product. This often happens when rivals aim to benefit from your app recognition among users. In fact, this is one of the main trademark functions that app developers should be happy about. The rules of various mobile app distribution platforms prohibit posting apps that infringe the trademark rights of others. Typically, the platforms actively respond to trademark infringement claims and demand the infringer to exclude its use in relation to its app or otherwise remove it. 
  4. On the other hand, a trademark protects against potential complaints from competitors. Among millions of apps, there are, predictably, similar names. If you yourself have to respond to a trademark infringement claim, a registered trademark will be a significant advantage. 
  5. In addition to placing the app on Google Play and other platforms, you may want to create a website for the product to reach more users and for marketing purposes. It makes sense to get a domain name that matches the app title. What if competitors are faster and such a domain is already in use? If the use is in bad faith, there is a chance to challenge domain use through the UDRP or other local dispute resolution procedures. The registered trademark is one of the arguments that must be proven.
  6. Trademark registration documents can serve as evidence that the idea of the app appeared earlier than the competitors who released app clones under other brands. 

Keep in mind that your trademark may not be eligible for registration unless it is unique and distinctive. This is always the case when a developer wants an app to be easily found and names it by its main function (“Duplicate file finder” is a great example). Use the prior clearance search to figure out whether a trademark conflict with existing ones or is too generic. But even without registering a trademark, such names should not be used as they do not create a stable association with a particular product or service, which means the main function of a trademark is failed.

Despite all the benefits, a trademark will not stop competitors from creating a similar application under another brand. That is why any lawyer will recommend considering additional options for creating comprehensive protection for your app.

Copyright 

Copyright happens the moment something is created. That is, in fact, the moment of writing lines of code or creating an interface design. However, despite this nice bonus, it is worth thinking about the official registration of copyright, and here’s why.

Copyright establishes the fact that a certain object (let’s say program code or game character design) was at your disposal at the time of applying to copyright, which is helpful in case you need to prove the time you came up with an app idea. 

You need to be sure you are the one who owns the copyright to your application. It is not uncommon for an author of an idea to involve other specialists in the development process, from freelancers to development companies, from university friends to Upwork specialists. Moreover, an author is often not a developer themself, so outsourced assistance will be needed. Have you signed any copyright transfer agreements with your team? Are you sure they won’t claim authorship to the code? 

Copyright is not limited to program code only. Everything that your mobile app contains (images, sounds, videos, graphics, articles, descriptions) is subject to copyright protection.

So, before registering a copyright or adding the phrase “all rights reserved,” make sure you have obtained all rights to all parts of the application and its content. This will protect you against complaints and someone on your team using all or part of the work to create their own application. At a minimum, when this is discovered, you can claim that the rights to this particular work have been assigned to you.

Don’t deceive yourself about the omnipotence of copyright. As a general rule, copyright protection plays a role if someone directly copies your application, but that doesn’t stop competitors from creating their own variations of the same idea. 

In any case, regardless of whether you decide to register a copyright, make sure you document everything. During the development process, send yourself emails with each part of the work. This will allow you to establish that on a specific date you already created such an object if suddenly someone claims otherwise.

Patents May Be Worth It

Patenting a mobile app is not the easiest way of protection, and as usual, the first steps do not include applying for a patent. Why is it tricky? Patents protect inventions or utility models and these objects must comply with specific requirements, such as being novel, useful and non-obvious.

Adequately evaluate the patentability of your app and the level of its originality. If your product offers technical solutions, innovative gameplay, etc., and you think your app may meet requirements, contact your patent lawyer to advise you on the patent process, terms and fees.

Despite the long and costly process (up to a couple of years), a patent is able to protect the functionality of your app and the concept of the app, including variations, and it gives you extra time to complete the app as well.

Sign Contracts and Document Everything

Legal literacy has never hurt anyone. Verbal agreements are certainly a cool option if no one objects. But when it becomes necessary to prove that the rights to the code have been assigned to you, that the logo designer has received a reward and has no claims, it can be difficult to prove it without written documents.

The inclusion of contracts should become a habit, not a burdensome step. Sign contracts with all contractors working on your project: developers, designers, marketers, and lawyers (the latter will offer the contract themselves, of course).

Contracts, among other things, should cover the transfer of intellectual property rights to all objects developed by them, if any, as well as non-disclosure obligations. Non-disclosure agreements are often entered into separately and contain obligations not to disclose any non-public information about your application to third parties and ensure that your information remains yours. 

Non-compete agreements can be trickier. They are designed to prevent the disclosure of trade secrets to competing companies. However, this goal is achieved by the prohibition of working for competing companies and participating in similar projects for some time after the end of work on your project. Such a requirement must be paid accordingly, which will increase the cost of your project. In practice, it may be difficult to convince developers to sign such a contract, so make sure this is not the only protection you have in place.

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In summary, do not underestimate the importance of documenting everything related to your app from the very beginning: trial versions, blueprints, message threads, strategy sessions, etc., anything that can potentially confirm the origin and time when you came up with the idea and shared the information with your team (if it is leaked, for example). It is advisable to consult with an intellectual property lawyer who can best assess the possibilities of protecting your app idea.

I recommend this not because I’m a lawyer but because I know what problems developers face if they initially decide to deal with the app protection themselves. Believe it or not, protecting your app will save you time, money, and inner balance.

Article by Kateryna Namaka

Kateryna Namaka is an IP lawyer at Legal IT Group, a team of IT lawyers assisting tech companies and startups in intellectual property protection and compliance with data protection and privacy laws worldwide.

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