Copyright, Trademark or Patent: How Do I Protect My App Idea?

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In this world we continue to see new truly unique ideas: completely re-imagined ways of thinking that end up being wildly successful. Think Airbnb, for example. Opening your home to travelers to benefit both the traveler and host seems a simple and obvious idea, but it took the intersection of necessity, innovation and technology to make it take off. Question is, can you protect this basic idea against copycats who seek to profit on it? If so, how? If not, what can you protect? In this post, we’ll explore how (and if) copyrights, patents, and trademarks can keep your hard work and intellectual property all your own when you enter the world of mobile app development and how to create an app that doesn’t get you into an unnecessary legal situation.

Which is Which?

Before we start a discussion on how to protect your new app, let’s do a quick recap on the differences between copyrights, trademarks and patents, coming straight from the US government and how it might relate to your app development. These are three separate processes, with different applications, lengths of protection, and terms. It’s good practice to consult with a lawyer, or at least research them thoroughly.

Copyright: “A copyright protects original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works.” In addition to books, songs, and plays, copyright protection actually also covers original code that you wrote for your app. More about this later.

Trademark: “A trademark is a word, phrase, symbol, and/or design that identifies and distinguishes the source of the goods of one party from those of others.” This includes the unique name of your app, the icon on the app store and the user’s phone, and any other symbols or unique design that identifies your app.

Patent: “A patent is a limited duration property right relating to an invention, granted by the United States Patent and Trademark Office in exchange for public disclosure of the invention. Patentable materials include machines, manufactured articles, industrial processes, and chemical compositions.”
This is a bit trickier to define; yes, the process by which your particular app interacts with your code, servers, and the user qualifies. If you think your “process” is truly unique, you can file for a patent.

What Should I Do First?

There’s a lot of moving parts going on when you start the process of mobile app development, so organizing and prioritizing your steps to protect your app needs to be done. The first step is to secure your team, regardless of size or trust level. Make sure that anyone that has any contact with your app signs a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). These are pretty commonplace anywhere in the professional workspace for both co-workers and freelancers, but keeps a solid legal level of confidentiality throughout. While you’re at it, draw up an agreement with your development team to sign away any claim on a future copyright claim; again, a fairly common practice, but anyone who helps on the initial phases of development could conceivably be considered a founder.

Set Yourself Up For Establishing a Trademark

Next, you’ll need to decide on a name (if you haven’t already), and research the available domain names also. At the same time, design a logo, either on your own or through a professional designer. Once you have both of these, you should register them for a trademark. This is a somewhat complicated process (there are trademark attorneys who can do all the minutiae), but realize that you are officially and legally establishing your brand identity. This is the first line of defense against anyone who may make a claim against you.

Can I Patent My App?

The short answer is yes, but it might be tricky. Patents primarily protect inventions, meaning a device or process that is markedly distinguishable and different than any prior iteration that came before it. Patents have an early history of protecting software (mostly in the old days when every bit of software was new), and now you’d be basically claiming that your particular interaction of code, server and user is completely unique. This is certainly possible in the current saturated app market, but not very likely. Do your research to try to figure out if it is indeed unique or consult your app development team to see if it makes sense. If nothing else, consider filing a patent anyway; having a patent pending, even if it’s never granted, can keep competitors away for a while.

So, Copyright…Right?

If you are in the unique position of having written every bit of code for your app by yourself with no help at all, then you are in a perfect position to copyright it. Just like any song, play, or book, being the sole and original author of any written work that is presented to the world means you have exclusive claim to the copyright. That said, you probably will get some help. We talked earlier about having your freelancers give up copyright claims, so get that out of the way first. And, realize that borrowing chunks of code from a code library or another open code source likely puts you in a legal situation that you can’t copyright. Copyright law can extend to other parts of your app that you can protect, though; written scripts or narratives that exist within the app can be protected, as well as any unique images that you produce.

Anything Else I Should Know?

Actually, yes. Any words, phrases or images (including animated characters, for example) of your own creation that exist within your mobile app can and should be trademarked. Let’s say you have a retail app, and your holiday wish list feature has a cute little elf named Mosey that picks up your item and “Moseys” it on over to your list…well, you can trademark both the character and the phrase. If your app hits big on the market, and some competitor tries to use Mosey without your permission, you are legally protected. Again, having an experienced attorney and app development team on your side to point these things out is a wise choice.

Following Through

To completely protect yourself, remember that these protections work both ways. It could be very easy to slip up and use something that someone else has protected as their own, and then you’ll be on the receiving end of the law. Careful research and development should always be utilized to protect against this. Also, in order for your various protections to be truly effective, you’ll need to be vigilant and fairly aggressive in going after anyone who infringes on your property. If others know you’ve pursued infringers before, they’ll be much less likely to try to steal from you. Remember, both Android and Apple app stores have around two million apps available for download, and there’s no way to know that they check for copyright violations. As with all the other parts of your mobile app development, it’s ultimately up to you to get it right.

Want to talk to a specialist about your app idea? Contact Koombea for a free consultation and the opportunity to ask us any questions that you may have about app development.

Robert Kazmi
Robert Kazmi brings a deep understanding of building high-growth, replicable, predictable, and profitable global technology organizations to Koombea. Over the last 20 years, Robert has successfully kickstarted many companies -- as well as divisions within larger Fortune 500 enterprises. He writes about app development and brings his real life experiences to his articles.

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