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How to Protect Your App Idea

Award-winning filmmaker and director of ABC reality TV series No Way San Jose.

A common question

By far the most common question I get asked by young entrepreneurs and app startups is “how do I protect my app idea?”. It is driven by the instinctive desire to protect one’s property (in this case intellectual property), and it is completely understandable. It is, however, a simple question with a not so simple answer, and a question that probably isn’t nearly as important as it may seem. Let me explain.

In theory, there are various ways you can go about protecting an idea. Here are some of them:

Protecting an app idea

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Before it can be legally protected, an idea must first take some kind of physical form. This could be anything from a few words on the back of a napkin, to detailed technical drawings. Once the idea has taken physical form it is automatically protected by copyright in most countries, no further action required.

Just because your idea is protected by copyright though, doesn’t mean somebody else can’t have a similar idea. In order to legally challenge a competitor you would need to prove that you came up with the idea first. It is therefor important to send your idea to a lawyer or register it using a copyright service so you have proof of a creation date, verified by a third party.

Trademarking an App

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Trademarks

Put simply, an idea can’t be trademarked. Your specific implementation of that idea can be though. Lets say your idea is a social network for beekeepers. The idea itself cannot be trademarked but your striking black and yellow striped interface design, catchy buzz sound effect when someone clicks ‘like’ and app name – ‘Buzzbook’, can be. Each aspect of your implementation would likely need to be trademarked separately, so this approach can get quite expensive.

Trademarks are popular with established companies who want to protect their brands but are of less use to new startups that don’t yet have a well-known brand to protect.

More Trademark Information

  • Trade marks | IP Australia
    Information about what a trade mark is and a step-by-step guide to applying, searching and renewing a trade mark.

Considering developing an app

Patents

Patents are normally used to protect new inventions and scientific discoveries but in theory, app ideas can be patented also. The hard part is explaining how your app invention is different from every other app invention out there. Ask yourself – is there really no other app in existence that does what my app does? If your app is ‘Buzzbook’, it probably has liking, commenting and sharing features just like Facebook and hundreds of other social networking apps do. That’s not to say it can’t be patented, but those particular aspects of your app certainly can’t be.

In order to be granted a patent, you’ll need to prove that at least some fundamental aspect of your app is completely original and doesn’t borrow from or function in a similar way to an existing app.

Patent applications are usually done through specialist patent lawyers and can cost thousands of dollars to put together. Once submitted, an application can take many years to be reviewed before being accepted or rejected. App patents are rare, likely due to the high cost and long timeframes associated, but they can be valuable when granted, so this option may be worth considering if you have something truly revolutionary on your hands.

More patent Information

Non-Disclosure Agreements

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Non-Disclosure Agreements

A non-disclosure agreement (NDA) or confidentiality agreement is a contract between two people. It is a promise by one or both parties not to share the other party’s confidential ideas and materials, and can also limit the use of the confidential materials by the receiving party to use for a specific purpose, like quoting or considering for investment.

An NDA can potentially be useful when discussing an app idea with an app developer or investor but won’t stop them from stealing your idea if they really want to. An NDA only covers the confidential materials you provide, it can’t stop others from providing the same idea to that developer or investor and them acting on it.

It is worth noting that most reputable app developers and investors have no interest in stealing your app ideas. It could damage the reputation of their business and considering the time and expense involved in developing and releasing an app, most simply don’t have the resources or inclination.

First to Market

This is, in my opinion, by far the best way to protect your idea – Build your app and get it out there before anyone else does!

If your idea and execution are great and your app is successful, there will always be copycats. No amount of copyrights, trademarks, patents or NDAs will stop this. But, having been first to market, you will be growing your user-base and improving your features while they scramble to catch up. If you can stay one step ahead of the competition, the size of your user base will be a huge deterrent to potential competitors.

Clones will come and go and you may even consider them a compliment. Flappy Bird made more money than all of the thousands of other Flappy clones put together, so I doubt these tiny competitors ever made much of an impact of Flappy bird sales. Flappy Bird creator Dong Nguyen never challenged any of the clone apps legally, though Apple and Google did remove some of the most blatant rip-offs from the app stores.

First to Market

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Conclusion

So, in summary, there are lots of ways to protect your app idea - All of them potentially useful; none of them perfect. While it is theoretically possible to protect almost every aspect of a completely original app idea, using the various methods mentioned above, it can be a lot of work and the cost can be substantial, if not prohibitive. For me at least, it begs the question – Is it really worth protecting your app idea?

In my line of work I hear dozens of app ideas every week and very rarely do I come across one that is completely original. Most app ideas borrow heavily from other apps and incorporate technologies that were invented by others. In my opinion, the time, energy and money invested in protecting an app idea that is probably not all that original in the first place, would usually be much better spent on actually developing the app and getting it out onto the market as quickly as possibly.

Of course there will always be those once-in-a-lifetime ideas that are just too good to share. No one would blame you for wanting to protect yours like a newborn child. But, in the end there’s a lot more to a successful app than just the idea and maybe the best answer to the question – “How do I protect my app idea?” is “build it and show the world how great it is!”.

Joseph Russell is the general manager of Melbourne app development company DreamWalk.

Comments

Joseph Russell (author) from Melbourne, Australia on June 25, 2015:

Hi Sriram, thanks for your comment. My company DreamWalk develop apps.

sriram rajj on June 25, 2015:

nice one Joseph, for those who want to protect their idea.Good info about copyright,patent and trade marks.sir you said u will be listening a lot of app ideas ,if you don't mind i just want to know whether you are a investor or developer.

Joseph Russell (author) from Melbourne, Australia on June 12, 2015:

Thanks Littlething!

John Jack George from United States on June 06, 2015:

Great hub, very useful. Now that the app market is really taking off, plenty of people want to create apps and other software. Excellent overview of copyrights and trademarks!

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