Based on the successes of mobile apps such as Instagram, WhatsApp and Snapchat, developing an mobile app that will earn millions of dollars has become a new dream of many software developers and entrepreneurs. The ease with which an app can be downloaded onto smartphones through platforms such as the Apple App Store and Google Play Store provides further incentive to developers to get their product into the hands of consumers sooner. Before entering the app market, developers should be aware of the potential legal issues involved. In this article, we explore how app developers can protect themselves legally and the key legal issues involved in the app industry.
1. Incorporate Your Business
Before publishing your app, it is a good idea to do so from an entity that is incorporated or limited in liability. This is the best way to protect yourself on the outset and make sure your personal assets are safe. Incorporating your business will benefit you in the long-term as unexpected problems may arise and claims may be brought against you, particularly if your app becomes successful.
2. Protect your Intellectual Property of your Mobile App
Three types of intellectual property may apply to your app: trademark, copyright and patent. Trademarking is used to protect what distinguishes your good or service from others. This is usually your brand name, logo or phrase, and should be used to protect the image of your app development brand. Patents are used to protect new inventions. If your mobile app has an innovative feature, you may choose to patent it. Copyright also applies to app developers, where it will allow the protection of the app’s source code. Under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth), computer code is protected under copyright law.
Using a non-disclosure agreement is the best and most efficient way to try and maintain confidentiality with any other developers, designers or other outside parties. Although it will not stop other parties from potentially breaching the agreement, the NDA will serve as evidence that you have attempted to protect your intellectual property. Furthermore, the case of CA, Inc v ISI Pty Ltd  FCA 35 has confirmed that source code can be confidential material.
4. Dealing with Clones
There are countless examples of cloned apps, where a developer launches an app, and a near replica of the app with minor changes is launched days later by somebody else. Popular game ‘Cut the Rope’ was imitated closely in the new game ‘The Candy Monster’. Photo-editing app ‘A Beautiful Mess’ was cloned after it moved to the number one spot under the name ‘A Beautiful Mess Free’.
Copycat apps are often accomplished by copying the source code of an app or imitating its features. The practice has become so popular that there are online marketplaces set up to buy and sell source codes underlying mobile app games, such as Sell My App.
Make sure that you do not accidentally infringe on other developers’ ideas and do your research before developing your app. On the other hand, if another developer has copied your app, there are legal recourse options available to you. It is recommended you do as much as possible to protect yourself and your intellectual property before launching the app to the public.
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