How to Protect Your App: A Lawyer’s Simple Breakdown
March 17, 2017, by Steven Buchwald & Drew Johnson
A brief overview of how to legally protect your mobile app.
Many first-time startup founders worry about people stealing their ideas. They tend to keep their startup a secret until they launch, and won’t talk to anyone about it without an NDA. While there are many things startup founders should be worried about, this is not one of them. Take it from Steve Jobs himself, “To me, ideas are worth nothing unless executed. They are just a multiplier. Execution is worth millions.”
You shouldn’t worry about people stealing your idea before you even know if your idea is worth stealing. If after you launch, you find your users really love your app, and you’re starting to grow quickly, then it’s time to start worrying about people copying your app.
There are a few different types of legal protection you can get for a mobile app. Some can cost tens of thousands of dollars, others may just be a few hundred. In this article, we’ll give you a concise overview of each type of protection and who should consider getting them.
According to USPTO a copyright, “… is a form of protection provided to the authors of ‘original works of authorship’ including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works, both published and unpublished.”
All app startups should consider getting a copyright. This will protect all of your source code, in-app copy, and graphics. Copyright registrations are usually fast and inexpensive to obtain, usually under $1,000 compared to a patent that can cost 10 times more).
Even though Apple and Google have top tier security, it is possible for someone with a jailbroken phone to extract the source code from your app. They could simply change a couple of lines of your code, and launch it as their own app. A copyright gives you a legal recourse to take if someone does attempt a fraudulent act.
Remember, this does not protect the idea, it only covers the physical and intellectual assets that make up the app.
A patent for an invention is the grant of a property right to the inventor, issued by the United States Patent and Trademark Office. This will give you the right to exclude others from making, using, or selling the invention in the United States.
Patents provide more protection than copyrights because its’ requirements are much more stringent. What you are patenting must be useful, novel, and nonobvious. It also has to be physical, it can’t be an abstract idea. Simply put, patents protect original ideas and inventions from other businesses that are highly unlikely to come up with these ideas by themselves.
You will not be granted a patent if your product uses any previously patented methods or processes to create your product. Both the idea and the way you brought that idea to fruition must be completely original.
Patents are the most expensive type of protection and can cost anywhere from $8k-$15k.
Protecting the name of the app is just as important as protecting the technology of the app. App names can be protected by what’s called a trademark registration. A trademark is a “word, name, symbol, or device that is used in trade with goods to indicate the source of the goods and to distinguish them from the goods of others.” In other words, it is the name you use to distinguish your product from other products. With mobile, a trademark is used to prevent others from using the same app name as yours, but it won’t prevent others from creating a similar app under a different name.
When should you trademark your company name? As soon as you start to see your download count growing. If you search any popular game in the App Store you will see many spin-offs. Popular Tetris-style game 1010, has been copied by an overseas programmer that named his game 10101010. This allows them to rank at the top when people search for the original game and steal some of the downloads that would have originally gone to the 1010 game.
Keep in mind that your trademark should be filed after your business entity has been formed. Other than that, filing a trademark early on is pretty straightforward, and costs only $150. You can read more on trademark protection on the Startup Law Blog.
Before settling on any name, it’s important to check if it’s even possible to trademark your app. You can see if the name is available on the USPTO website. If your name is available, consult a trademark attorney on your next steps.
After settling on your name make sure you reserve it on the app store, register your domain name, and create your social media accounts.
To protect your app name on the App Store, go to iTunes Connect and submit your app name reservation. The application process and reservations are free and as of 2015, there is no limit as to how long you can hold your name for as long as you are not in violation of Apple’s Guidelines.
“You will not, directly or indirectly, commit … (e.g., submitting fraudulent reviews of Your own Application or any third party application, choosing a name for Your Application that is substantially similar to the name of a third party application in order to create consumer confusion, or squatting on application names to prevent legitimate third party use.”
You can use Namechk to see if there are domains and social media usernames available for your desired name. Try to match your domain name as closely as possible to your app’s name, but don’t worry if that’s not an option. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to do this as more and more domain names are taken each day. You may have to get creative like companies such as www.joinhouse.party, www.visual.ly, and www.snapl.ink. You can purchase your domain by going to a domain provider like Namecheap and paying an annual fee of $10-$40.
Always ask the agency you’re working with for an NDA. Every established mobile app development agency will have these documents on hand and will gladly sign upon request. Mutual NDA’s keep all information you share private and will confirm that everything that is rightfully yours will remain yours.
Signing an NDA will give you protection to some degree, but it won’t 100% guarantee your app is safe. The best way to protect your app during development is to work with a reputable company. Conduct thorough research by using reliable review sites like Clutch.co to make sure the agency you work with is trustworthy and has quality reviews.