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How do I protect my Mobile App idea?

So every day we have people that contact us and they have an idea for a new mobile app.

One of the very first questions they usually ask is:

“How do I protect my mobile app idea?”


The extremity of this varies, with most people asking us to sign a non-disclosure agreement. Thats good, we have them ready and raring to go.

Others think that they want to purse some sort of patent protection to prevent people from stealing their ideas.

Once in a while we hear about  someone who went to a “developer” that they suspect stole their idea, however there should be pretty obvious evidence of this. I have only really heard of one situation that this was plausible. Honestly it seems crazy, even suicidal to me if you are an agency, design firm or development shop and you steal. Generally this does not happen.

As I would tell any new client, I wouldn’t be in business very long if I stole people’s ideas and built them myself.

So that is all fine, we will gladly sign non disclosures and we ethically wouldn’t steal ideas. We are in the business of ideas2apps: helping people build apps, not stealing them.

But I digress.

OK so, what is the best way to protect your app idea? Here are the four tips that I have for anyone in the idea stage. First off, I am NOT a lawyer. So consult a lawyer. I think I need to say that. I’m only telling you what I’ve learned from my experience and what I understand are your best protections. But don’t take my word for it talk to a lawyer about options. That sort of consultation can be done over the phone and for free. Alright here they are top ways I know of to protect your app Intellectual Property rights:

  1. Get a non-disclosure and maybe even some sort of  assignment agreement signed. Will you sign an NDA? Yes it’s fine, ask for it. The NDA. Developers, Designers or anyone else you are consulting with on your app project get them under your cone of silence.At the very least it tells them you are serious and you mean business. Also if you do use anyone or employ anyone to build or design for you make sure they sign an agreement not to steal, reuse the work. Make sure they agree to release (assign) any of the work to you that they complete under your employ. Got it? OK cool now to #2…
  2. Build it. Thats right just get it designed, get your idea turned into an app as soon as possible. Once you have it developed you have copyright protection. That means someone can’t just come by, reverse engineer or outright steal your code. They cannot steal your designs. Make sure that the agency or provider or freelancer you are working with agrees in writing up front by the way to release the copyrights to you at the end of your project. That is once you pay your bill, the intellectual property is yours. Technically a developer or designer who creates your app design and code owns it. So get it upfront in writing that once they are paid off, it’s released to you. We do this in all of our (rather simple) agreements with clients. Otherwise you could be squeezed into licensing your own app. Uh yeah, not good.
  3. Trademark your app brand. For $500-1000 you can legally trademark your app’s name and brand. I use a service called trademarkia in San Francisco and there are plenty of lawyers who can help you. We recommend people talk to Sarah Lysons at Perkins Coie in Seattle. She really gets the app game and knows her stuff. You technically have trademark protection once you starting using your “mark” or brand name in the public. For example you create a logo, tagline, website, publish your app. You have some protection. Registering trademarks however means that anyone else doing a search of your trademark will clearly see you’ve got it stamped and registered. So don’t mess!
  4. Patents. Seems like you can patent anything these days. It’s not cheap though. The process is long. I think it can take 1-5 years to get a patent. Well six years ago apps didn’t event exist so, yeah. Don’t wait. Jut build your app. If you do have something you think is worth patenting thats great, but don’t wait. Get your app built and get the copyright and trademark protections in hand. Once in a while we meet clients who are all about the planning. Ok more than once in a while. They see barriers to entry that do not exist. Just do it, build your app and if you have the cash to get a patent- pursue it but don’t sit around and wait for that. It is certainly not necessary.

Finally the bonus #5 tip is this. The best protection is SUCCESS. Its not a legal protection of your IP, but if you have a brand that people know and app that people use, that in itself is a barrier to entry. If your app is visible in the app store and on people’s devices- others will be intimidated.

Competition exists, it just does– I am of the opinion that you shouldn’t just turn tail and run. Maybe you end up being the 2nd best or 3rd best app in a category. In my mind the opportunity is not diminished. For one thing users “get” the concept of the app. Especially in the app game. Users have an appetite for new stuff and quality apps. Apps can be disposable.

The average user has something like 64 apps on their device. Its not a major investment typically. So don’t get all freaked out by competition- but know… most others DO get freaked out by a winner. If you have success and are tops in a category, potential competitors every day turn away. Now that is NOT You and I. We see opporutnity to be “in” the game right? For others?

They will get discouraged before they ever start. They will see your success and give up. They won’t try to build in your category. So success is an effective protection. That means get the thing built, on the app store and on people’s devices. Just don’t allow yourself to wilt when you see someone else has the same or a similar idea.

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