What app developers need to know about intellectual property

By Rae Steinbach, BlueLabelLabs.com

The app marketplace is very crowded. To launch a successful app, it’s not enough to merely create something that offers genuine value to users. It’s also important to make sure that your app is protected, to help it stand out among the competition!

That’s why it’s crucial that app developers for the iPhone and other phone and computer platforms understand intellectual property. You don’t want to release a strong app, only for an unscrupulous developer to rip it off as soon as it hits the market.

The following are some key points app developers (or anyone partnering with developers to release their own app) should keep in mind:

The Importance of Early Planning

Developing your intellectual property strategy isn’t a task you can leave until the last minute. This can be a relatively complex process, depending on the type and workings of your app and the type(s) of intellectual property you need to protect it. It’s crucial that developers plan out a strategy during the very early stages.

Understanding Trademarks, Copyrights, and Patents

There are various means of protecting an app from an intellectual property perspective. Developers should understand the functions of each.

At the highest level, effective branding can play a key role in distinguishing an app from others. Thus, it’s smart to trademark such elements as a brand name, logo, slogan or tagline.

Copyright is the most commonly used means of protecting an app’s content, including the digital object code file(s),the source code and images. However, a copyright doesn’t actually protect your ideas. With a copyright, no one can legally make or distribute an exact duplicate of your app or substantial parts of it, but they could release an app that has similar uses.

You may be better off getting a patent as well. A patent can protect the new functionality that you’ve developed in the app.

 Tip: If you’re not a developer yourself, but merely partnering with developers to release an app for your customers, be sure that you have written agreements in place with the developers that make clear you own the intellectual property rights in the app.  You also may be responsible for securing patents, copyrights, and similar protections. While the developers are creating the app itself, you can focus on these business priorities.

Trade Secrets

Trade secret protection can also safeguard elements of your app that are non-public but that have value because they are not known to others -- the ‘secret sauce’, if you will.  Unlike other intellectual property which is publicly known, trade secrets are protected precisely because you have kept them secret.

What qualifies as a “trade secret” can vary substantially on a case-by-case basis. In general, though, a trade secret is often a quality or feature of an app that is unique to your app and provides a competitive advantage. For example, if you’re releasing an eCommerce app, you might use your own proprietary AI technology to offer users hyper-personalized product recommendations.

In order to benefit from trade secret protection, you need to take reasonable efforts to keep the information secret, for example by having confidentiality or ‘non-disclosure’ clauses in your agreements with developers and employees, and having physical and technical security to help keep the information from being stolen.  

You want to ensure that such contracts clearly state that such information may not be used except in the work done for you, and may not be disclosed without your specific agreement; for example if employees leave the company to work elsewhere, they may not share these secrets with their new employers.

Don’t underestimate the importance of remembering these points and protecting your intellectual property as you plan, develop and release an app. You will work hard to come up with a winning app. Don’t squander the opportunity by letting someone else steal it from you!


Rae Steinbach, BlueLabelLabs.com