How to Protect Your App Idea from Being Copied?

Intellectual property theft continues to be a significant issue plaguing the global economy. An ’Intellectual Property‘ (IP) commission report published in 2017 estimates that the loss to the US economy from IP theft is between US $225 billion and US $ 600 billion every year.

It‘s not just about the counterfeiting of goods, or pirated music or movies. If you are an entrepreneur with an app idea, you can also lose out from intellectual property theft. In this article, I will explain how to protect your app idea from being copied.

It‘s important to protect intellectual property. Enterprise and innovation form the very basis of the free-market economy and they can‘t flourish without IP protection. Read more about the importance of IP protection in “Protecting intellectual property”.

Contents

Protect the app idea that really matters
Copyrights: Approach #1 to prevent copying app idea
Patents: Approach #2 for protecting your app idea from unauthorized copying
Trademarks: Approach #3 with a focus on the app name protection
Reserve the name of your app in app stores: Approach #4
Find the right development partner: Approach #5
“Non-Disclosure Agreement” (NDA): Approach #6
“Non-Compete Agreement”: Approach #7
Protecting your trade secrets: Approach #8

Protect the app idea that really matters

You will notice that protecting your app idea requires hard work when I explain the various approaches. It’s important that you spend the resources and energy on app ideas that really matter. In other words, if an app idea isn’t valuable, then it’s not prudent to expend scarce organization resources to protect it from IP theft.

Instead, it‘s better to direct the organization resources to create a valuable app idea in the first place. How do entrepreneurs know if an app idea is valuable? Renowned management guru late Peter F. Drucker had cited seven sources of innovation. These include unexpected events, incongruities, process needs, etc.

However, the common theme is that an entrepreneur must look outside his office, and into the market, to find sources of innovation. Read more about Drucker‘s thoughts on this in “Peter F Drucker‘s seven sources of innovative opportunity”. You too should look at the market to know if your app idea is worth.

You need to conduct a thorough market research to find if your app idea has a viable market. Only after that, you should take the necessary steps to protect the app idea from being copied. Check out “How to do market research: a 5-step guide” to know how you can conduct an effective market research.

Copyrights: Approach #1 to prevent copying app idea

As an entrepreneur trying to launch an app in the market, you have likely spent significant effort already. If it‘s a new idea, you have studied the market carefully for a sustained period. You have possibly taken feedback from the market as well for your app idea. Now you know that the idea is worth pursuing.

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Now is the time for you to get the copyright for your app idea. The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) defines copyrights as follows: “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.” Read this definition in their webpage titled “General information concerning patents”.

You have multiple advantages of getting a copyright, as follows:

  1. Your source code gets legal protection from copyright infringement.
  2. The in-app content gets the legal protection it needs.
  3. You might have spent plenty of resources to create high-quality graphics. This gets the legal protection too.

At this point, you need to understand a key point. Copyright protects the physical and intellectual assets of your app, which is a bit different from protecting the idea itself. Nevertheless, getting a copyright is an important deterrent.

The process of getting a copyright varies from country to country since the law is often different. If you are in the US, you need to follow the process formulated by the US Copyright Office. Check the process in their “Registering a work” webpage. In India, you need to work with the Copyright Office of the Government of India. Research the laws and processes in your country, to find out how you can get a copyright.

Patents: Approach #2 for protecting your app idea from unauthorized copying

Patents are issued for inventions. They grant property rights to the inventor. The USPTO defines patent as follows: “A patent for an invention is the grant of a property right to the inventor, issued by the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Generally, the term of a new patent is 20 years from the date on which the application for the patent was filed in the United States or, in special cases, from the date an earlier related application was filed, subject to the payment of maintenance fees. U.S. patent grants are effective only within the United States, U.S. territories, and U.S. possessions. Under certain circumstances, patent term extensions or adjustments may be available.”

A patent is an important way to protect intellectual properties. The respect towards the IP rights that come with patents is an important indicator of how innovation and enterprise fare in that country. Not surprisingly, the US tops the chart of patent-friendly countries. You can read more about it in “Here are the best and worst countries for intellectual property protection”.

Patents enable inventors to protect others from making, using, or selling their inventions. Most matured markets have stringent requirements that inventors must meet to win a patent. The invention should be useful, and original. It can‘t be just an obvious finding or theory. Patents must be physical. No country allows patenting an abstract idea.

An inventor can‘t patent something that he has produced by using previously patented technology or methods. The stringent guidelines make patenting an expensive affair, however, it also provides a high degree of IP protection.

Patenting laws and processes vary across countries, furthermore, the patenting authorities are different. It‘s the USPTO in the US that grants patents, whereas the European Patent Office (EPO) does that in the EU. In Japan, the Japan Patent Office addresses this. The National Intellectual Property Administration, PRC (CNIPA) is the patent office in China. In India, the Intellectual Property India is the patent office.

If you want to file a patent in the US, you need to follow the USPTO-prescribed process. Find more information about it in “How to file a patent in 8 easy steps”.

Trademarks: Approach #3 with a focus on the app name protection

In this approach, I have a rather limited focus. I will show you how to protect the name of the app here. This approach alone isn’t sufficient to protect the app idea or technology. Someone can copy your app and publish it in a different name if you reply on trademarks alone.

The USPTO defines trademarks as follows: “A trademark is a brand name. A trademark or service mark includes any word, name, symbol, device, or any combination, used or intended to be used to identify and distinguish the goods/services of one seller or provider from those of others, and to indicate the source of the goods/services.”

Laws related to trademarks and how to obtain them vary across countries. Following are information resources for a trademark application in some of the major world economies:

Note that you need to first check whether your desired app name is even available for a trademark application. For each of the above-mentioned countries, the trademarks authorities also provide a way to search existing trademark. It‘s typically a database and you need to contact the above trademark offices I have listed.

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Reserve the name of your app in app stores: Approach #4

This is another approach with a limited scope, i.e., it deals with the app name only. However, it’s important. Assume you build a successful app. There are unscrupulous developers that can copy your app, give it a similar name, and attract users to their app.

Mobile app marketing is entirely digital, as I had explained in “How to create an effective app marketing strategy?”. Losing your target users to a duplicate app with a similar name will adversely impact your app marketing.

You need to reserve the name of your app in the app stores. Follow this guideline to do so in ’Google Play‘. The similar guideline for ’Apple App Store‘ is in “How to reserve an app name”.

Find the right development partner: Approach #5

Let‘s face it: mobile app development is no longer a niche capability. There are many developers with the required skills. There are many development partners. As with human nature in any endeavor, there will be a few unscrupulous mobile app developers.

If you engage a software development company to bring your mobile app idea to reality, then you need to select the right partner. If you don‘t, you may end up working with a few unscrupulous developers. Most mobile UI/UX designers now know enough about relevant Mobile navigation menu examples and mobile app color schemes. They can easily design a professional-looking UI.

It‘s not hard to build the functionalities, either. Depending on the business use case, there are many providers offering ’Software Development Kit‘ (SDK) and ’Application Programming Interface‘ (API). Developers can also create RESTful APIs themselves.

Managing the mobile app backend is also easy nowadays. There are many ’Mobile Backend as a Service‘ (MBaaS) providers in the market and developers can easily address the backend requirements. All these make launching a mobile app easy nowadays.

To guard against your brilliant app idea falling in the hands of unethical developers, you need to select a right development partner. Honesty is the most fundamental quality you should look for in a development partner. Check our guide “How to find the best software development company?” before you shop around for a development partner.

“Non-Disclosure Agreement” (NDA): Approach #6

This is applicable if you engage a development partner, however, it‘s not a substitute for due diligence in choosing the right partner. A “Non-Disclosure Agreement” (NDA) binds the employees/contractors of the development partner legally, therefore, they can‘t share any details about your project in an unauthorized manner. Read “NDA 101: what Is a non-disclosure agreement?” to know more about NDAs.

You need to execute an NDA with the development partner, however, that‘s not enough. When the development partner executes your project, they have some express liabilities. However, laws concerning liability are complex. To put it simply, you also need to bring the development partners‘ employees/contractors in the ambit of the NDA.

You also need to devise a process with the development partner to cover for team member turnover. There may be instances where the development partner will need to out-rotate one or more development team members. They typically bring in replacement developers. These new team members also must execute an NDA at the time of onboarding in the project team.

“Non-Compete Agreement”: Approach #7

Like an NDA, a “Non-Compete Agreement” is also applicable when you engage a development partner. Again, like an NDA, this is not a substitute for due diligence before selecting the right software development company.

In case of a non-compete agreement, the development company and/or developers can‘t use the information they have gained while working in your project for a competing project. A competing project can have a wide meaning, for e.g., the project could be for your competitor. In some cases, it might mean a project with a use case like yours. Read more about it in this Investopedia definition of non-compete agreement.

A non-compete agreement imposes significant restrictions on development companies and developers. Typically, there is a ’cooling-off‘ period after your project, during which they can‘t take up your competitors‘ project. Some development companies aren‘t keen on executing such agreements. You may need to negotiate and incentivize the development partner.

Protecting your trade secrets: Approach #8

Lastly, you need to establish processes within your organization to protect your trade secrets. Your employees shouldn’t divulge your app ideas when the project is still in its’ formative stage. This, of course, requires a balanced approach since your app marketing might start early. This might make it imperative to share some information early in the cycle. However, this should also be done on a ’need-to-know’ basis.

Following are examples of steps you need to take to protect trade secrets:

  • Identify, label, and secure confidential information;
  • Regularly monitor your information security processes;
  • Limit access to confidential information;
  • Train your employees and contractors on your information security policies and practices.

This is not an exhaustive list. Read more about it in “Protecting trade secrets”.

In conclusion, your brilliant app idea needs as much protection as your other trade secrets. You need to take the necessary legal, procedural, and technical measures to protect your app idea.

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