What Happens When You Don't Protect Your App Idea & Are You Too Late Already?

March 18, 2015

Andrew (A.J.) Tibbetts

(As published by the App Entrepreneurs Association)

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but in an app context it will lead to lost users and lost ad impressions. This may seriously impact a bottom line and may even affect exit strategies such as prospects for acquisition.

Worse, copying of mobile apps is widespread, to the point that Apple has even introduced a web interface for reporting duplicates in an effort to clean up the App Store. It is important for app developers to consider strategies for protecting their investment in their business and the ideas behind their app.

Lessons From Famous Apps

Two well-known examples may clarify the need for protection. The game 2048 was a hit almost immediately after its release in 2014; subway riders could see the game everywhere.

Within weeks of its release on the web, copies sprang up in the form of mobile apps, which led to widespread scorn of the copiers and praise for the original developer. In the face of the praise for 2048’s developer, though, came the counterpoint that 2048 was itself a copy of an earlier-released game Threes (the web page for the original 2048 declares it to be both “conceptually similar” to Threes and based on an earlier copy of Threes called 1024).

Facing flagging distribution just weeks after their initial product release, the developers of Threes fought back, even going so far as to release their notes and emails from over a year of development to demonstrate that their hard work deserved customer loyalty and to show why their product was better. Threes was chosen by Apple as the Best Game of 2014, but still fights for sales against derivative games.

Facebook Tries to Copy Snapchat

Another situation went better for the original developer. Snapchat is a well-known messaging app that deletes messages after a short time. The short lifespan of messages was a game-changing idea in the messaging space that came just at the time that social media users were becoming concerned about long-term privacy.

Of course, any upstart platform that threatens the existing players will become a target for being copied by those players. Facebook has so far released two products that both integrated Snapchat’s message-deletion feature.

The history of software development is full of stories of bigger competitors with established distribution channels duplicating newcomers’ work and pushing out the newcomers, but in this case Snapchat has been able to grow in the face of Facebook’s competition. Customer loyalty appears to have saved Snapchat in this case, but it would not be prudent for other startups to rely on that.

In both of these cases, strong IP protection using options discussed below may have helped them fight off the competition.

Am I Too Late to Protect My Idea or App?

It’s never too early or too late to think about protecting your business. Protection does not just include planning for competitive threats, but also accounting for internal problems.

There are too many examples of companies starting informally, with developers receiving help from friends and colleagues without thinking of long-term prospects, and regretting that informality when money is on the table.

From the first days of the company, app developers should be clearly delineating ownership of ideas, documenting development and any sharing of the ideas, and planning for how to protect intellectual property (IP) rights in those ideas from competitors.

In addition, due to changes in U.S. patent law that took effect in 2013, founders are now in a race to the patent office for filing patent applications. Due to the new “first inventor to file” system, the first company that files a patent application for an idea will be granted the patent rights to the idea, even if another (such as a small company with limited resources) has been working on the idea since well before that first company.

It is therefore even more important than before to develop your IP strategy early in the life cycle of your company.