Note: MotionMobs does not claim to give legal advice. This article is intended for educational purposes only.
We’ve seen it happen again and again: a prospective client is hesitant to share their app idea because they aren’t sure what kind of legal protection they have. While we aren’t legal experts, here is the advice that we give clients who are feeling protective of their ideas to help ease their concerns.
Should I start by copyrighting my app idea?
A copyright is essentially claiming a piece of text, art, video or music as an original work of your creative mind. In order for a copyright to be filed, you must be able to submit original text, art, video or music. You can copyright a book, a poem, a movie, a song or pretty much any other entity that is made of something you can see and/or hear. An app before its actual creation is an idea only. As a result, an app idea is ineligible for copyright, as are any other types of ideas. The name of your app, though, is eligible for trademark.
So do I need a patent instead?
Patents generally apply to invented processes or machines. Apple was able to patent the “slide to unlock” gesture used on an iPhone because it is a specific process to accomplish something in a new way; it wasn’t an app. Unless you’re developing hardware to go with your app, it is highly unlikely that anything you create along the way would be eligible for a patent.
Before I tell you my idea, do I need to have you sign a nondisclosure agreement?
When clients first come to us, the vast majority of them have just a general idea for an app. Since we just covered how ideas don’t have much of a legal leg to stand on, a nondisclosure agreement (NDA) doesn’t do much for you and could actually hurt your ability to secure a developer. Any reputable development firm will not develop an app that is in direct competition with another client, nor will they take your idea to develop for their own gain. Your app should be a solution to a problem that ideally many people face, which means there are likely other people pondering the same thing. Some developers won’t sign NDAs at consultation meetings because there’s no guarantee you’ll even do business with them, and it could limit their future potential clients. Unless you’re incorporating a new invention with your app, skip the NDA.
What if someone else out there makes an app that does the same thing that mine does?
There could be another app that does the same basic thing as yours, and no one has infringed on anyone else’s rights. Think of it in terms of something you’re more familiar with: grocery stores. Two retailers are allowed to come into the same town and both sell food. It would be ridiculous to say the second person can’t sell food because the first person is already selling food. Apps are businesses, and having competition is a good thing. Your focus shouldn’t be on having zero competition; it should be on making sure your product is superior to the competition.
What can I protect?
While you have no exclusive claim to your app idea, you do have rights to the code that runs your finished app. Source code and object code are protected by US copyright law like any other work of text. The copyright office views code like an architect’s plan, which is a very specific way of producing a particular product. The original code in your app belongs to you (and perhaps your developer, if you’re working with one). If someone else made an app that used your code, then you would have a case. Conveniently, the art that goes into your app is also protected, so no one else can make an app with your graphics. All works are protected by copyright law upon creation, but before going to court for any reason, you must have registered your copyright. To register an app for a copyright, you must submit a section of the original source code in the application. You cannot copyright open source code as your own.
In conclusion, treat your app idea with the same consideration as you would a new business idea. Getting feedback on your idea from friends and family as well as a professional opinion from a developer is going to help fine-tune your idea to the best it can be. Be confident in approaching development firms, but telling it to every person you meet on the street might be spreading your innovative ideas a bit too far.