The world of mobile app development has exploded with creativity and innovation. Whether you're a tech-savvy entrepreneur or a small business looking to make a mark in the digital space, developing a mobile app can be an exciting venture.
However, in the rush to bring your app idea to life, it's crucial to consider the legal aspects, especially when it comes to copyright for apps. In this article, we’ll explore various facets of app copyright laws in the UK and how you can protect your intellectual property.
Can apps be protected by intellectual property rights?
An app is essentially a software program. The source code of any software is automatically protected by copyright law. If a developer employed by your company creates new code for a particular piece of software or app, the copyright of the code belongs to your business unless you sign it over via a written agreement to a third party (most often, this is a client who’s purchased the software).
If you’ve instructed a freelancer to develop the code, you must have an agreement with a solid IP clause before work begins, stating that the copyright of the code belongs to your company.
Are apps copyrighted?
Yes, apps are copyrighted. Like any other original work, mobile applications are considered intellectual property and are automatically protected by copyright laws the moment they are created in a fixed, tangible form.
This means that your app's unique code, graphics and other creative elements are legally protected from being copied without your permission. It’s also crucial to note that if your app is utilising third-party code, text, video, graphics or music, then you must obtain a license to use it.
App copyright laws in the UK
In the United Kingdom, mobile app developers enjoy robust copyright protection. The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 safeguards your app against unauthorised reproduction, distribution or adaptation. This protection extends to the app's source code, design, user interface and other copyrighted materials.
App copyright infringement
App copyright infringement occurs when someone uses your copyrighted app elements without your permission. Signs of app copyright infringement may include a rival app that closely resembles yours, unauthorised use of your app's source code, or even the replication of your app's unique features. To protect your app, you must be vigilant and take action if you suspect someone has copied it.
How to check your app isn't infringing copyright
While protecting your app is crucial, it's equally important to ensure that your app doesn't inadvertently infringe on someone else's copyright. To avoid legal disputes, conduct thorough research to determine if any existing apps have similarities to your concept. It's advisable to seek legal advice to ensure your app complies with copyright laws.
Can I copyright an app idea?
Copyright laws don’t protect ideas; they protect the original expression of ideas. This means that you can’t copyright your app idea alone. However, once you've developed your app and it exists in a tangible form, it’s automatically protected by copyright. To safeguard your concept further, consider using Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) when discussing your app idea with others, such as potential investors or developers.
Can I copyright an app design?
Yes, you can copyright your app's design. The design elements of your app, including its user interface, layout, and visual assets, are considered original works eligible for copyright protection. By registering the copyright for your app's design, you gain additional legal safeguards against infringement.
How much does it cost to copyright an app?
In the UK, copyright protection is automatic and doesn’t require registration or a fee. However, registering your copyright can provide additional benefits, such as enhanced proof of ownership in legal disputes. The cost of copyright registration varies, so it's advisable to consult with one of our IP lawyers for specific pricing details.
Trademarks for apps
Although trademark law can’t protect the technical elements of an app, it can ensure aspects of your new app, such as visuals, sounds and logos, are safeguarded. Even in the absence of a registered trademark, protection can be obtained via the common law principle of ‘passing off’.
Successfully applying for a trademark or bringing a claim against another for ‘passing off’ requires the expertise of an experienced IP solicitor. For example, you’ll need to run a comprehensive search to check whether the ‘mark’ you propose to register has already been trademarked. A simple Google search will be insufficient – a trademark solicitor will have comprehensive tools to instantly search through the UK and international databases, mitigating your risk of your trademark application being challenged.
Do apps have patents?
While copyright protects the creative aspects of your app, patents are used to protect new and inventive technical features. To be protected by a patent in the UK, an invention must be:
- Involve an inventive step
- Be capable of industrial application
Technically, software isn’t able to be patented because it isn’t a ‘new invention’. A patent can be obtained for an invention implemented by a computer program; however, the test applied is whether the invention makes a technical contribution to what’s already ‘out there’ in the market.
Applying for a patent to cover software should be carefully considered, as disclosing your software in the application may benefit your competitors. It’s often the case that as the patent process and its disclosure is a matter of public record, the benefit of the patent protection is outweighed by the risk of publicising your company's information.
Our IP lawyers can advise you on your chances of obtaining a patent and whether or not an alternative form of protection, such as copyright, is more appropriate.
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Whether you’re set to launch your app on the market or plan to partner with a developer or development company to realise the vision you’ve for your software, you must take immediate steps to protect your intellectual property. Steps you can do right now include:
- Ensure you have the documented evidence you need to protect an infringement or apply for a registered trademark or patent (have all documents related to specs, prototypes and testing signed and dated)
- Research the different types of intellectual property protection to gain an understanding of which option is best for your business (for example, a patent application costs on average £4,000 and takes around five years to complete)
- If you’re a startup owner anxious to get your app on the market, a patent is unlikely to be a suitable option (relying on copyright and unregistered design rights will be more realistic until your business is established)
- Talk to an intellectual property law solicitor who can advise you on the best options available to protect your software or app
Protecting your app idea and creative work isn’t only a smart business move but a legal necessity. By understanding copyright laws, using Non-Disclosure Agreements and seeking legal advice when needed, you can ensure that your mobile app development journey is filled with success and peace of mind.