How to protect your app idea legally

11 min read
May 10, 2023

In 2022, the athletic retail giant Adidas sued its rival, Nike.

The reason? Three mobile apps owned by the latter company—Nike Run Club, Nike Training Club, and SNKRS—allegedly stole Adidas’s patented technology.

Whether you believe they did so or not, the fact is that infringement happens all the time, even between high-profile companies.

That’s why it’s essential that you protect your app idea to prevent anyone from stealing your hard work.

Here are eight ways you can protect your app idea legally.

Copyright your app

Copyright is one of the basic legal protections you must have. It establishes your app ownership, giving you the sole right to create, sell, and modify it.

It also allows you to sue anyone who tries to copy it.

A copyright notice is often displayed prominently, for instance, on the app splash screen and the bottom of the app store page.

copyright notice example

Source: Termsfeed

In legal terms, copyright applies to any tangible piece of physical or intellectual work.

In the case of app development, this includes the source code and in-app assets like visuals and animation.

Registering for copyright takes around 3-4 months in the US and may vary in other countries. It’s a long period, so consider that when moving into development.

The process is relatively straightforward. You must submit copies of your app’s assets, such as the source code and UI wireframes, and proof claiming that you own it.

The latter requirement gets tricky if you outsource your development to another team.

Because they’re the ones who wrote the app, they could also legally claim copyright ownership of the app.

To prevent this, you need a contract explicitly stating that you own the source code and all relevant assets.

However, the problem is that because an app idea by itself is intangible, it cannot be copyrighted.

Fortunately, you can use other legal alternatives for that purpose, though they’re less effective than copyright.

Register the trademark

A trademark is another legal protection that can benefit your app.

Most people confuse a trademark and a copyright. While both prevent others from copying your app, the difference lies in their coverage.

A copyright generally protects the app itself. A trademark, on the other hand, protects your app’s brand and reputation. This covers the app name, logo, and marketing slogans.

trademark vs copyright

Source: G2

Trademarks are useful for preventing another app from using the same or similar-sounding name or logo, which could create confusion among users.

One example is the trademark infringement case between two photo apps, Photobox and PlanetArt.

The latter was found to feature a similar icon to the former, which could potentially confuse users. They even had similar App Store page layouts.

Check out the side-by-side comparison below:

trademark infringement example

Source: Gowling Wlg

A court eventually ordered Photobox to pay PlanetArt for the infringement. This is the kind of deterrent that trademark protection can give.

Compared to copyright, registering a trademark is more complex and time-consuming, normally lasting over three months, even up to a year and a half.

That’s because the process normally allows another party to oppose your trademark application (for example, if they think your trademark infringes on theirs).

trademark registration process

Source: Hucke and Hucke

Also, note that not all words can be trademarked. Generic names for a product can’t be trademarked, such as “Phone” for a phone.

Adjectives are also difficult to trademark because they can sound generic and ordinary.

The best trademarks sound unique, such as an invented word or a person’s name.

Apply for a patent

A patent protects any new invention, such as a technology, process, or product.

It’s generally the most powerful legal protection because it establishes that your idea is original.

That means a competitor can’t even create an app that’s roughly similar to yours without express permission.

It’s like Uber patenting that ride-hailing process, so no other app can use it.

patent holder rights

Source: Appinventiv

However, there’s a reason Uber hasn’t done this yet, and why competitors like Lyft are still around.

Patenting an app is generally challenging to do. That’s because they don’t apply to an abstract idea but only to specific implementations of it.

Apart from that, they must also satisfy the following criteria:

patent protection requirements

Source: Twitter

In this case, hailing a ride is an abstract idea. It isn’t even novel—taxis have been doing it for decades. Thus, Uber can’t patent that process.

However, Uber can patent the unique technologies and processes it uses in its ride-hailing app.

For example, the company has successfully patented its system for optimizing multi-user requests.

If you want to patent your app, you must be prepared for it. The process normally takes years and costs thousands of dollars. And thanks to strict requirements, it isn’t always successful.

Therefore, it’s often a good idea to consult with a patent lawyer before applying.

Have everyone sign a non-disclosure agreement

Notice that most of the legal protections we’ve discussed only apply if the app is already complete or in development.

So, how do you protect your app idea if it’s just that—only an idea?

This is where non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) come in.

A non-disclosure agreement is a legal document that prevents everyone involved in the app’s development from sharing confidential information with the public.

If anyone does, the other party can sue them.

non-disclosure agreement example

Source: Juro

NDAs are essential if you’re discussing your initial app idea with a potential stakeholder, such as an external development team.

That way, even if you don’t get their services, they can’t just steal your idea and create a competing app.

It’s also a good idea to let everyone on your team—even third-party contractors—sign NDAs so that no one will leak trade secrets without consequence.

Such a scenario can happen if a disgruntled employee resigns and takes company secrets to a competitor.

When drafting an NDA, it’s critical to clearly define what information is meant to be confidential.

Not everything can be included in an NDA—one possible exclusion is publicly-known information.

To be safe, getting a lawyer to write an NDA for you is best.

Ask those involved to sign a non-compete agreement

A non-compete agreement is a legal document that prevents your staff from working on a similar project with a direct competitor in the near future.

Its goal is similar to an NDA—it avoids leakage of confidential information from your ex-employee or service provider.

However, drafting a non-compete agreement is vastly more complicated than an NDA.

That’s because the contract essentially limits a person’s work opportunities. Thus, there must be a balance between company protection and employee fairness, or a court could invalidate it.

To do so, a non-compete agreement needs to include several aspects:

non-compete agreement elements

Source: LegalZoom

For example, a non-compete agreement can’t last forever—usually, around one or two years is standard.

That’s because an indefinite non-compete clause is unfair to employees and robs them of potential opportunities.

The same is true of a non-compete clause that covers an entire country or every industry.

Also, a non-compete agreement should offer additional compensation to make up for the lost opportunities of the employee. Usually, this can be in the form of a raise or promotion.

Also, consider that non-compete agreements are enforced differently around the world. In fact, it’s interpreted differently in every US state.

non-compete agreement limits in the US

Source: Twitter

Overall, it’s best to get the services of a lawyer when drafting non-compete agreements. That ensures you get ample protection without stepping on employee rights.

Choose a reliable development partner

Legal protections for your app idea are, at best, just deterrents.

While it doesn’t let anyone get away without consequence, the legal proceedings will consume your precious time, money, and effort.

Hence, it’s best to avoid these headaches altogether by getting a trustworthy, reliable development team to work with.

But instead of just looking at their skills and qualifications, you should also gauge their professionalism and work ethics.

The best way to do this is to look at their reviews and testimonials. Reading through them will tell you whether an agency can be trusted.

Repeat clients are a very good sign, as they show the agency is trustworthy enough for multiple projects.

Decode review

Source: DECODE

When checking testimonials, be sure to look at third-party review sites as well, such as Clutch or Glassdoor. These could give you a better, unbiased evaluation.

Also, when dealing with potential development agencies, be wary of those reluctant to sign NDAs or non-compete agreements.

Assuming the contract provisions are fair, it shows an unwillingness to maintain the integrity and confidentiality of the project.

It’s why DECODE insists on drafting an NDA as early as the consultation stage. We prefer everything to be black and white to ensure no misunderstandings occur later.

Speaking of black and white…

Document everything

Comprehensive documentation is one of the most critical legal protections you’ll have.

That’s because it could be used as evidence if you need to pursue infringement cases in court. Anything written is concrete and is thus much stronger in court versus a mere verbal statement.

For example, if you need to prove that your app idea is original to win an infringement case, you’ll need to back it up with written proof from emails, official documents, and the like.

Simply basing it on verbal accounts from friends and family might not win you the case.

Thus, you should make it a habit of documenting everything, such as wireframes, app blueprints, test case results, and strategy documents.

Even verbal communication, such as brainstorming sessions and daily catch-ups, should be documented.

A good way of doing this is to record the meeting with a device, then transcribe it into a text document.

Distribute the document to everyone for transparency.

meeting minutes example

Source: Pinterest

The bottom line is that legal proceedings can be challenging and time-consuming. You can ease that burden by documenting every aspect of your development.

Doing so also gives you the evidence you’ll need to win your case.

Pursue cases of infringement

Legal protections are useless if you don’t exercise them. Thus, if someone infringes on your app, don’t hesitate to pursue action against them.

Luckily, both Apple and Google facilitate this process.

For instance, if you notice another app using your name or logo in the Apple App Store, you can report the incident via Apple’s content dispute form.

The Google Play Store also has a similar facility.

Apple App Store content dispute form

Source: Apple

If you have sufficient proof of the infringement, Apple and Google will usually remove the content for you. However, if the app maker persists, you might need to turn to legal action.

The first legal step you can take is sending a cease and desist letter.

This is basically a letter warning them that if they don’t take down the app or modify it to remove the infringement, you’ll file a legal case against them.

Cease and desist letters usually give the respondent a short deadline, which forces them to act urgently.

cease and desist letter example

Source: eForms

If they still don’t respond to a cease and desist letter, you’ll have no choice but to take them to court. You’ll need a lawyer to help you through this.

Filing a case can be tiring and expensive, and you might be tempted to ignore it. But that could do more damage in the long run, as it sends the message that you’re an easy target.

So, make sure that you commit to chasing after infringers 100%. It’s the best way to protect your hard work.

The importance of protecting yourself legally

Protecting your app legally might be expensive and time-consuming, but it’s for the best.

What you’re actually paying for is the peace of mind, knowing that all your hard work is safe against bad actors who want to steal it.

But it isn’t just an app idea that needs legal protection.

As the app owner, you also need protection, especially when dealing with a third-party service provider. And the best way is with a contract.

If you’re interested in this topic, check out our primer on writing a custom software development contract.

Written by

Marko Strizic

Co-founder and CEO

Marko started DECODE with co-founders Peter and Mario, and a decade later, leads the company as CEO. His role is now almost entirely centred around business strategy, though his extensive background in software engineering makes sure he sees the future of the company from every angle. A graduate of the University of Zagreb’s Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Computing, he’s fascinated by the architecture of mobile apps and reactive programming, and a strong believer in life-long learning. Always ready for action. Or an impromptu skiing trip.

Related articles