Protecting your application is very important. Nobody wants to see a copycat steal all the time, energy, and money you spent to get your idea onto the store. Having an app that stands out is one part of the equation, but every developer would do well to also look into the ways available to protect his or her intellectual property (IP).
In this article, I would like to address some of those strategies for IP protection, and give you some of my thoughts. This is meant to steer you in the right direction, and not as legal advice. The extent of my advice is that you get a solid IP and/or technology attorney on your team. Which strategy you choose to employ should depend on your ultimate goals for your application and the company you are building around it.
First let’s talk about copyright. This type of IP protection extends to original works of authorship. For example, this can include, novels, movies, songs, or in the case of applications: source code, graphics, sound effects, text for your instructions, your app description, video or audio content in the app. It does not cover ideas or systems or methods of operations, other than in the specific “artistic” way you choose to use them in your app. Copyrighting is very affordable. In fact, it’s automatic on any original work in the US and many other countries. The challenge, of course, is proving the original authorship, which is why registering with the U.S. Copyright office (currently costs as low as $35 if done online at http://www.copyright.gov/eco/) often is the best step to lock in that time and date stamp on the proof of your authorship.
Second there is the Patent. Out of all the intellectual property protections, patenting is the most powerful. Unfortunately, it is also the most expensive to get and enforce. Typical costs for this process can range beyond $10,000. In addition to the cost, there is also the time involved. It generally takes about 2 to 3 years for approval, which is often why iPhone developers pass on this form of protection unless they are really aiming for a long-term strategy. A final point on patents: it is important to ask if your invention is indeed patentable. To qualify, your invention must be new and useful, and you need to be able to describe so another person reasonably skilled in your area of industry could make it work from your instructions. Oh, and it must also be “non-obvious” to that same type of person of reasonable skill.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we have Trademarking. Trademarking applies to the brand and identity you use for business. This is perhaps the most effective way for application developers to fend off would-be competitors. Trademarks don’t protect concepts or ideas, but they can protect names, logos, icons, etc. that people associate specifically with your company.
The important qualification here is that the name be distinctive enough. Some trademarks are stronger than others. Made-up names like “Google” or non-literal names like “Apple” for a computer company are usually more enforceable than names that are descriptive of what the company does, like “Application Developers, Inc.”. Businesses often like having these types of names because it tells the customer immediately what the company does, but unfortunately the drawback from having a non-enforceable name is that it often makes it impossible to keep a competitor from using a name for their business that is close to or exactly the same as yours. This can greatly affect your bottom line and even your reputation.
A good IP attorney can advise you on strategies for your name, as well as guide you through the back-and-forth communication often required to file with the Patent and Trademark Office. Costs for trademarking can range depending on how extensive a search you perform before filing for your name. It can also range depending on how broad you want protection (just to the U.S., or to some or all of the 77 countries where the app store is available). It is important to weigh your costs against your revenue goals when determining what is the right type of IP protection to pursue. You can find out additional information about patents and trademarking online at http://www.uspto.gov/.