Reading time: 6 minutes

Given the time and effort it takes to develop an app, you should consider taking measures to protect your app from being misappropriated by others. As an app developer, there are different forms of intellectual property available to you, which each serve different purposes. Although there is no standardised checklist to follow when protecting your app, this article outlines some general steps you can take to protect your app and adapt to your individual circumstances. 

1. Automatic Legal Protection 

Many app developers are unaware that copyright law already protects their app. Unlike patents and trade marks, copyright does not have to be registered with IP Australia. In Australia, copyright protection automatically applies to literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works upon their creation. This means copyright owners can prevent others from copying their work without their permission. 

Under the Copyright Act, copyright protects apps under literary works, an app being a recognised form of computer software. To ensure that your app enjoys automatic copyright protection, the app must be:

  • original;
  • created as a result of a person’s skill and effort; and
  • in material form, meaning that the app is already in existence and not just an idea for an app. 

In this sense, copyright protects the expression of creative ideas. For example, copyright can protect the images used in your gaming app or the script upon which you based a game. 

However, copyright alone does not:

  • prevent others from using information about the app to develop their own; 
  • protect the function of your app; or
  • protect the name, logo or slogan of your app. 

These protections and preventions can be achieved through other forms of intellectual property, as listed below. 

2. Clarifying Copyright Ownership 

Whoever owns the copyright in the app gains the right to prevent others from copying their app without their permission. Since apps are usually developed by a team, you must clearly define copyright ownership from the outset. 

You can use an App Developers Agreement (ADA) to set out the rights and obligations of each person involved in developing an app. Whilst an ADA will typically include timelines, payments and confidentiality agreements, it can also specify copyright ownership. Generally, the creator of a work is the copyright owner. However, copyright ownership can be held by the:

  • client if they have commissioned the app; or
  • employer if you have developed the app during the course of employment. 

You must be aware of who owns the copyright in an app, as this will ultimately determine who has the right to prevent others from copying their app. 

3. Contractual Protection 

Since automatic copyright protection alone cannot prevent others from coming up with their own app, you can use non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) to ensure that other developers or employees do not misuse certain information about the app. In the instance where somebody leaks information, you have contractual remedies available to you for any loss suffered due to the leaked information. 

Non-compete clauses are also fairly common in ADAs. Put simply, a non-compete clause prevents one person from entering a similar profession in competition against the other person. In the context of app development, one company would likely include a non-compete clause in its employment contract to ensure that its employees do not decide to work for another developer. Like an NDA, a breach of a non-compete clause will entitle you to contractual remedies in the instance where you have suffered a loss as a result of the employee’s breach. 

4. Apply for a Patent

Whilst copyright cannot protect the function of your app, a registered patent can. A patent is a type of intellectual property that gives its owner a legally enforceable right to exclude others from making, using or selling their innovative device or process. A patent can protect a wide range of inventions, including computer software, for up to 20 years.  

You must apply for a registered patent with IP Australia. To satisfy the requirements of patent registry, your app must generally be:

  • more than an idea, meaning it cannot be a mere concept for an app; and
  • new, meaning it is useful and must not have been seen in the industry before. 

Your app must also have patentable subject matter. This means that generally, your patent must be able to protect a technical aspect of your app, such as the server-based processing system or the methods used for processing user information. Since the patent application process can quickly become complex, it would be wise to seek the advice of a lawyer with expertise in patent law.

5. Use Trade Marks

You can protect the unique features of your app which make it unique and recognisable to the public with a trade mark. Trade marks registered with IP Australia provide owners with the exclusive right to use, licence and sell their trade mark to other people. In the context of app development, trade marks can protect an app’s:

  • name;
  • title;
  • logo; or
  • slogan.

For example, Instagram LLC owns the trade mark of their colourful camera logo, the title ‘Instagram’, and the cursive font used in the title. 

By registering a trade mark for these features of your app, you can prevent others from using your trade marks without your permission. When someone uses a similar or identical trade mark concerning a similar app, they are likely committing trade mark infringement. As a result of your exclusive rights as a trade mark owner, you have legal remedies available to you to stop them from further engaging in the infringing conduct. 

Key Takeaways 

There are numerous steps you can take to protect your app. Whilst copyright automatically protects some of your app’s features, you must be aware of who owns the copyright in the app. You can take further measures in contract to ensure that employees and other developers do not misuse information gained in the app’s development. You can also apply for a patent and trade marks to protect the function of your app and its identifiable features, respectively. If you need help with protecting your app, contact LegalVision’s experienced IP lawyers on 1300 544 755 or complete the form on this page. 

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between a standard and an innovative patent?

Innovative patents protected inventions that did not meet the requirements of a standard patent. However, from 25 August 2021, the Australian Government will begin phasing out innovative patents.

How long does copyright protection last?

Copyright protection depends on the type of creative work it protects and whether the creator is known. Generally, a literary work that includes computer programs has 70 years of protection, in addition to the creator’s lifetime.


Redundancies and Restructuring: Understanding Your Employer Obligations

Thursday 7 July | 11:00 - 11:45am

If you plan on making a role redundant, it is crucial that you understand your employer obligations. Our free webinar will explain.
Register Now

How to Sponsor Foreign Workers For Your Tech Business

Wednesday 13 July | 11:00 - 11:45am

Need web3 talent for your tech business? Consider sponsoring workers from overseas. Join our free webinar to learn more.
Register Now

Advertising 101: Social Media, Influencers and the Law

Thursday 21 July | 11:00 - 11:45am

Learn how to promote your business on social media without breaking the law. Register for our free webinar today.
Register Now

Structuring for Certainty in Uncertain Times

Tuesday 26 July | 12:00 - 12:45pm

Learn how to structure to weather storm and ensure you can take advantage of the “green shoots” opportunities arising on the other side of a recession.
Register Now

Playing for the Prize: How to Run Trade Promotions

Thursday 28 July | 11:00 - 11:45am

Running a promotion with a prize? Your business has specific trade promotion obligations. Join our free webinar to learn more.
Register Now

Web3 Essentials: Understanding SAFT Agreements

Tuesday 2 August | 11:00 - 11:45am

Learn how SAFT Agreements can help your Web3 business when raising capital. Register today for our free webinar.
Register Now

Understanding Your Annual Franchise Update Obligations

Wednesday 3 August | 11:00 - 11:45am

Franchisors must meet annual reporting obligations each October. Understand your legal requirements by registering for our free webinar today.
Register Now

Legal Essentials for Product Manufacturers

Thursday 11 August | 11:00 - 11:45am

As a product manufacturer, do you know your legal obligations if there is a product recall? Join our free webinar to learn more.
Register Now

About LegalVision: LegalVision is a commercial law firm that provides businesses with affordable and ongoing legal assistance through our industry-first membership.

By becoming a member, you'll have an experienced legal team ready to answer your questions, draft and review your contracts, and resolve your disputes. All the legal assistance your business needs, for a low monthly fee.

Learn more about our membership

Need Legal Help? Submit an Enquiry

If you would like to get in touch with our team and learn more about how our membership can help your business, fill out the form below.

Our Awards

  • 2020 Innovation Award 2020 Excellence in Technology & Innovation Finalist – Australasian Law Awards
  • 2020 Employer of Choice Award 2020 Employer of Choice Winner – Australasian Lawyer
  • 2020 Financial Times Award 2021 Fastest Growing Law Firm - Financial Times APAC 500
  • 2020 AFR Fast 100 List - Australian Financial Review
  • 2021 Law Firm of the Year Award 2021 Law Firm of the Year - Australasian Law Awards
  • 2022 Law Firm of the Year Winner 2022 Law Firm of the Year - Australasian Law Awards