Thieves Beware: Getting Intellectual Property Rights for Your iPhone App

Updated March 25, 2015.

Mobile App Intellectual Property

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As an iPhone app developer, you should know about intellectual property. For every application you make, you create intellectual property which will serve as the basis of your ownership and the value of your company as it grows.

Intellectual property rights, in simple terms, refer to the rights that you have for your creative work, protecting your work from unlawful use by other people or companies. These rights allow you to sell and license your app to other people.

Equally important, intellectual property rights prevent possible copycats or competitors who might steal your work. For example, if another company or a competitor copies your work which you have protected properly (such as application, graphic, or even the idea itself), intellectual property rights enable you to sue and if possible, recover damages from the other party.

Several people inside our private community have gone through this process, so be sure to ask them if you need more detailed answers.

There are various types of intellectual property that protect your content:

  • Copyright. The author or developer is given the right to choose who can copy, modify, distribute or make derivative works from the original work.
  • Patent. The author or developer is given the right to prohibit others to use or export the original work.
  • Trademark. Trademarks intend to keep other companies or competitors from confusing people into thinking or believing that their company is you or somehow has affiliations with you.

What’s your intellectual property strategy?

As an app developer, you need to create and devise an intellectual property strategy for your apps. Here are some things to consider when you begin to plan your strategy.

  • You may need to create the strategy quick. In the app business, competitors grow every second. It may be therefore wise to quickly establish your intellectual property protection, especially if the nature of the app you have developed is fairly simple. Other rights which may take years, which may be applicable in traditional products or ideas such as movies, books, or songs, may not be a good choice in a fast, competitive market such as app software development.  Obtaining a copyright, for example, may be a good way of quickly securing the rights to protect your work.
  • You may want to seek a low-cost protection. It is a fact: many of the apps you see in the market right now commercially fail. Only a few of the apps in the market are financial successes. It is therefore a good business decision to pick an intellectual property protection that is low-cost in nature. At least for now, seek an affordable protection strategy and wait until your app becomes more popular and successful before spending additional money to protect your rights.
  • Do you want an intellectual property protection in one country, or beyond? You should also consider whether you are obtaining intellectual property rights in one country or you want to secure rights in other countries as well. Of course, getting rights in as many countries as possible is good, but this means a lot of money. Every country is an additional cost in terms of securing your rights. Again, it might be better to evaluate first the profitability of your product than obtaining intellectual property rights for your app overseas.

Copyrighting apps

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Copyright will protect the original work for your app, including the source code, graphics, text, and the audio-visual content. Obtaining copyright protection, let’s say from the US Copyright Office, is affordable. The process is cheaper compared with filing a patent or trademark. The process is also easy and fast. You can also file for copyright protection online.

Copyright, however, does not protect your ideas, facts, or methods of the operation unless they are implemented or used in an artistic or creative way (as copyright might be able to give you protection for how they are expressed.) Ideas themselves are not protected by a copyright.

Filing trademarks

Trademark will not protect your ideas or concepts. What it can protect, however, is the name or logo you used for the app, especially if the name or logo is unique enough. In this case, your app’s icons or logo are protected by your registered trademark. This is a way to stop other developers or competitors to exploit the reputation you have achieved for your concept or app.

In the United States, filing a trademark registration is easy with the US Patent and Trademark Office. Again, the process is online and the Patent and Trademark Office provides applicants with a detailed guide how to file an online application.

Filing patents for your apps

If you really think your apps have what it takes, then you might consider filing patents for them. True, they are costly to obtain and litigation may be expensive, but once you secured them, patents offer highly strong protection for your ideas and apps. Other companies or competitors will have to seriously think twice before copying from your patented ideas and apps, lest they want to be sued big time.

In fact many companies, especially those that are already successful or have gained some level of success, have secured a number of patents primarily for defensive reasons against competitors.

However, before you file that patent application, you should seriously consider the costs involved in the application. The costs vary, but getting an attorney for your application and having the application published would cost to as low as $10,000. The application process may also take you a long time, around two or three years. This means that your app should be a long-term business venture if you want your patent to become really useful.

You should also ask yourself: Is your invented app really patentable? For your patent application to succeed, your invented app should really be new (meaning you are the first person or company to invent the app) as well as useful.

Filing your patent application should also be done within one year after the app was first published, sold, or used publicly. It is therefore advisable to get in touch with a patent attorney as soon as possible so he or she can advise you with the process.

NOTE: this is not professional legal advice. It is simply an overview and a place to start if you want more protection for your mobile endeavors. 

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COMMENTS

  • Bhatt January 24, 2015

    Nice information. What happens if patent application is under way someone else try to clone the app?

    Does copyrights protect from clones or a patent is required?

  • Carter Thomas Carter Thomas January 26, 2015

    @Bhatt – Hard to say (especially since I am not a lawyer). You really don’t have a lot of legal power until you own intellectual property, so you might be out of luck until a patent is issued. Then you just need to be able to prove that it is an infringement.

  • Jorge Martinez May 18, 2015

    How about if I have an original idea but I need to hire an app developer to write the code? How can I register my intellectual property?
    Best Regards

    Jorge

  • Valerie j. Turks August 8, 2015

    I have a intellectual property since 1967 and I really need to protect it. It has a television on it,some other keys that need protecting from other people.

  • Tony October 22, 2015

    You should mention provisional patents. They are inexpensive and protects as well as a non-provisional.

  • Mohammed November 9, 2015

    What is the most effective way to protect an android app ownership though it is an open source?

  • Steve July 12, 2016

    Actually any literary work is copyright protected the moment it’s created. The only issue that may arise is if you have created something that is a direct copy of someone else’s work. But if your software app is original in its content, and you are the developer, your work is copyright protected by default.

  • Carter Thomas Carter Thomas July 12, 2016

    @Steve – yes if you lift the code directly with no changes, it falls under certain laws. The issue, however, is that there is no way to determine what makes a “new” work different enough from an original. Where is the line of inspiration drawn? If you update 20% of the code, is that enough? Software patents are virtually impossible to enforce.

  • Justin August 21, 2016

    I have an iPhone app. What is the cheapest way to protect my brand and ip?

  • Carter Thomas Carter Thomas August 22, 2016

    @Justin – depends what kind of IP but the best way is to trademark the names and images you want. If you have proprietary algorithms or software, you can try to patent those but that is much more expensive and difficult.

  • Beth Taylor August 29, 2016

    I am developing an app that is unique in my industry and I expect it to be extremely popular and have long term usage.

    I will be building both iOS and Android apps that behave in nearly identical manner. Will one patent cover both or would I need two separate patents?

  • Paul September 9, 2016

    In response to Tony’s comments: A provisional patent application will give you nothing as far as rights are concerned. You must convert or file a non-provisional patent application based off of the provisional patent application to have protection (if it gets patented). A provisional patent will never by itself mature into a non-provisional. They are a good way to get a filing date, and can give you a grace period to decide if want to go ahead with the non-provisional, and also gather more data for your invention, but they expire a year after the filing date if you do not file a non-provisional pat. app.

  • carol December 25, 2016

    Trademark images…animation has so many images…do you have an example of an app with certain still images from it that are trademarked?
    Let’s say the developer has an animated character, Apple, who has certain super powers. What does he submit to the Trademark people? A still drawing of Apple containing the text of her name and the words she always says before super-powering? Or does he give them an animated short that describes her powers? So, the villain, Juice, also gets his trademark…?
    That is, I know how they applied for the Trademark “Kleenex”, but how is this done for apps?

  • Sienna Eskildsen January 13, 2017

    iPhone applications are written in objective-c, which is a crazy-ass crazy language. It’s not impossible to get going, but it’s probably help if you already knew how to program.

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