Intellectual property and other legal issues related to developing a smartphone app

By Alexa Marino, Glance Creative Ltd, www.thisisglance.com

With more than 5 billion smartphone owners in the world, the mobile app market is huge. For many businesses, tapping into this market represents a key opportunity. However, there is more to it than having a good idea and hiring a mobile app developer to make it happen.

One important factor that many businesses fail to recognize before getting started is the importance of intellectual property and other legal issues that related to developing a mobile app. Some of these can be a minor hassle if they are not handled properly, but some legal issues can be vital to the success of an app business, or indeed sink the entire operation. Before any business gets started on developing an app for iOS or Android, they should make sure to understand the legal issues that may be involved.

Intellectual Property

Intellectual property (IP) laws can support and impact the development of a mobile app in many ways. In general, you would break IP down into four categories: trademark, copyright, patents, and trade secrets.

A trademark is a piece of IP that identifies products or services as coming from a specific source. It includes things like a logo or other recognizable sign, a slogan or expression, or the name of the company. Most businesses would try to trademark at least their company name and the name of the app. If the app has a unique logo or other type of symbol, that may also be eligible for trademark protection.

With copyright, you have protections for original works that are in a ‘fixed’ state. Most people would associate copyright with things like novels and movies, but it can also apply to some elements of a mobile app. This includes things like the user interface, and the apps images, sounds, and music.

Certain elements of a mobile app may also be eligible for patent protection. The owner might be able to obtain a patent if the app contains some unique technical process or method. However, patent laws and patent applications are complex, so developers should consult with a patent attorney if they believe some aspect of their app is eligible for patent protection. 

App developers often protect their innovations by keeping them secret rather than filing a public patent application.  A trade secret refers to things like processes, tools, and designs that a company uses, but that have been subject to ‘reasonable steps’ to keep them confidential. In the case of a mobile app, the source code can be a form of trade secret; customer lists, design documents, and other valuable business and technical information can be protected as trade secrets.

EULA

An End-User License Agreement (EULA) is a contract between the owner of an application and the end-user. Having a EULA is a requirement of most mobile app stores, so it is going to be a necessity for businesses that want to develop and market a successful mobile app.

In general terms, a EULA outlines the scope of the end-user’s license to use the app. This includes how users are allowed to use the app and the conditions under which the app is allowed to be used. Part of the reason for a EULA is to limit the app owner’s liability, but it is also a measure to specify and protect the IP ownership and usage in the app.

Privacy Policy

A privacy policy is another requirement of most app stores, and is a specific legal requirement in the European Union (and the UK at present), and some other countries and locations (e.g. California). With your privacy policy, you need to outline such things as the user information that is collected, who has access to that information, and how it is stored, protected, and transferred. There are templates that can help you create a privacy policy, but most experts would recommend including the specific issues relating to your app and your business as well.

App Store Agreements

Most app stores are going to require you to enter into an agreement in order to have access to their marketplace. These terms usually cannot be negotiated, so you will want to be familiar with them before you start developing your app. If you can’t agree to some of the terms or your app does not meet the guidelines for some reason, you won’t be able to use that particular marketplace for distributing your app.

The legal issues associated with mobile app development can be complex, and this outline is just the beginning of the list when it comes to the many issues that could arise. If you are going to develop a mobile app, getting the advice of a lawyer can be a smart move to avoid running into legal problems later on!