Developing an app is extremely time-intensive and expensive, so it makes great business sense to try and protect your app idea. Protecting an app, however, is not as straightforward as other technologies. This blog post aims to explain different aspects of app protection along with suggestions for startups or those on a budget.
First, if the app employs a new and useful process or method it may qualify for patent protection. Patents afford the most protection, allowing an app developer to prevent others from practicing the app's method or process.
While patents offer great protection, patents are expensive and may not be the best option for small inventors or startups. Startups may wish to use other means to secure the app’s code, like copyright or trade secret.
Next, the app’s code may be registrable with the Copyright Office. As I have discussed in past blog posts, registration with the Office is not required, but confers significant benefits.
The fee for registering your source code with the Copyright Office is low and is simple enough for the DIYer. Here is the circular outlining the process for registering software, including an option for developers claiming trade secret protection.
Trade secret law offers limited protection for an app’s source code. Trade secret protection depends upon the secret holder’s reasonable steps to ensure secrecy and a third party’s ability to reverse engineer the code. Execution of contractual agreements, such as an NDA, is a simple–yet effective–means of keeping the source code secret.
Unlike patent law, trade secret does not prevent others from uncovering the source code through proper means. This problem can be somewhat remedied by maintaining the secrecy of the source code and contractually limiting methods to uncover the source code from the object code.
Finally, the owner of the app should register any source identifying marks related to the app. These can include the app icon, the app name, app color, or anything that is source identifying–even smells or sounds.
Trademark law affords the mark owner protection against apps which are confusingly similar to the registered mark. The fees for registering a trademark are considerably less than filing a patent, with the USPTO fees starting at $225, and a total cost of around $1,000.
On a budget?
If you are a developer on a budget you may be able to take advantage of trade secret and copyright to protect your code for relatively low cost. Trade secret protection does not require payment of any fees, and registering with the Copyright Office is cheap.
Trade secret and copyright registration provide substantial coverage at minimal cost, and are the minimum steps any developer should take to protect their app.
If the budget is a bit higher, I recommend developers take the time to register the icon and name of the app with the USPTO. This will protect the app from imitators at a moderate cost.
App developers should take the time to familiarize themselves with the protectable elements of their apps, and steps they can take to ensure the apps are protected. Early proactive measures can pay dividends down the road when someone copies your idea. If you have any questions about how to protect your app you can contact me here.