It doesn’t matter whether you’re preparing your product for release or only writing a code – you still may be thinking of how to protect your IP rights. You baulk at the idea of somebody copying the results of your work, and you’d do anything to stop worrying about it, and finally sleep with a peaceful mind again.
So you keep thinking “What should I do?” and “Should I do anything at all?” Let’s get it out using 3 certain cases, and try to protect the idea, prove the authorship, and register IP rights.
Disclaimer: All the following cases are fictional, and do not depict any actual persons or events.
Case No.1. How to Protect Your Idea
One guy, let’s call him Igor, shared his startup idea with his best friend during their usual table-talk. A few weeks later, their friendship was over: the ex-friend stole Igor’s idea, and started to bring the stolen idea to life. Meanwhile, our hapless startupper began to create a plot for revenge that involved courts, cyber police, and security authorities. So, the question is, how could Igor protect his idea?
The answer is simple: he couldn’t. There’s a theory that all ideas appear from nowhere: they’re always somewhere in the air, and some people can catch them earlier, so sometimes similar ideas may occur at the same time to people who actually don’t know each other, and live on the opposite sides of the planet. Therefore, it’s nearly impossible to protect such ideas.
Apparently, the lawmakers do actually believe in this theory, since the law doesn’t protect any idea, unless it becomes (1) a copyrighted item (a painting, music or literature, etc.), or (2) an industrial property item (an invention, a trademark, an industrial design).
Therefore, if Igor has a million dollar startup idea, he should go ahead with bringing it to life. “Is it totally impossible to protect the idea? Can I at least protect it for some time while I’m working on a prototype?” you would ask. No, actually, you can’t. You may try to use an NDA or FrieNDA, if you’re not afraid to look like you’re paranoid. However, even these remedies cannot provide an ironclad guarantee.
Remember that even the idea of Facebook was borrowed: Winklevoss twins decided to create a social network for Harvard University, and hired Mark Zuckerberg to make a website. While working on the project, Mr. Zuckerberg found his own inspiration, and created Facebook. By the way, the twins lost their legal battle over whether the idea had been stolen from them.
Case No.2. How to Prove the Authorship
Meet Max! Max is a programmer who has developed a mobile app using which you can delete all your social media accounts in one click. He was sure his program was unique. But in a little while, he saw that a competitor had fully copied his app and published it in the Google Play store. Max wrote to Google Play and filed a lawsuit as well, but the competitor claimed that he had developed the application independently and registered the copyright for the source code. The question is how can Max prove that it was he who created the app?
Answer: Max has to prove that he has been the first. Then the second developer will turn out to be the one who has stolen the app. The only question is how to prove it.
Many lawyers would recommend you to use this ancient life hack: send yourself a letter by regular mail with a program saved on a memory stick, or with a printout of a source code, and don’t open the envelope. The date on the envelope will indicate that Max has had his app developed by that time. However, there is one catch. How could the competitor have stolen Max’s code, if it has been in the envelope all the time? What is he has managed to created the similar code? As we know, all ideas are somewhere in the air. So, humph…
Still, there is a better way to protect what’s yours: save your source codes and your app designs online, or publish your app on the web, and indicate the authorship. If Max gets in contact with Google Play ahead of his competitor, provided that the competitor has no evidence to prove his authorship other than the later issued certificate of authorship, then Max will carry the day.
Copyright registration is another possible option. You can register parts of a source code as a work of literature. It sounds weird, since you cannot recite the code like a poem, but that’s how it works.
Actually, copyright registration is not mandatory: your rights in the work arise by virtue of its creation, and apply to all signatory counties of the Berne Convention. It works almost all over the world, since only Afghanistan, Bhutan, and a few more countries did not ratify the Convention. Anyway, if the dispute arises, copyright registration may work for your benefit, provided that your date of registration is earlier than that of the disputing party.
One way or another, Max should have thought about the evidence beforehand. He could at least add the copyright or hide some Easter eggs in his application, or use obfuscation, or at the very outside, give his source code to code monkeys for processing.
Case No.3. How to Register Your IP Rights
Developers, who used to be old friends, gathered together, created an online flight search service, and thoughtfully registered the copyright for the source code. After a while, our friends knocked their heads. One of them left the company and created a rival product with the same functions, but used a different programming language. The question is will the developers of the first service manage to charge their ex-friend with copyright infringement?
The answer is no, they won’t. The concept of copyright is as old as the hills, and ‘back-end’, ‘front-end’, ‘bug’, and other smart words you use are all Greek here. The same goes for ‘functionality’ and ‘programming language’. Yes, it works in case the segment of your source code has been stolen (like in our Case No.2), but it won’t save you if somebody has stolen the algorithm or functionality from you. Copyright protection is available for the copyrightable expression embodied in a computer program, i.e. it is available for a source code as a narrative, or for a sequence of modules at most. However, it is not available for ideas, methods, and algorithms described in a program.
So our developers should find other ways to protect their algorithm. The first thing that comes to mind is protecting the program algorithm as confidential information. Of course, our developers used to trust each other when they created their product. But let’s face the truth: an NDA executed at the very beginning would have made their lives easier.
We may also recommend patenting. The only thing is that rights in patents do not arise by default, and you should register them. In addition, patents are not recognized worldwide: if you want to obtain protection in a specific country, you should apply for a patent in this country (there are a few exceptions). For example, in Ukraine you can obtain patents for utility models (the type and the process of use of a device) or industrial designs (visual design). If you’re using your product in the USA, you should apply for a software patent (similar to utility model), or a design patent (similar to industrial design).
Still, before you apply for a patent, you should think whether your algorithm really falls within the criteria of patentability, including the international novelty and inventive step. In addition, you have to be sure that your idea is not obvious or abstract. You know, even Apple’s slide-to-unlock patent was held invalid.
Provided that your algorithm has passed the adequacy and novelty check, you can go ahead with registering it. Otherwise, don’t take this risk, and use this pot of money for your business development.
Instead of a Conclusion. There are plenty of other cases. You may be wondering how to use open-source solutions properly, or how to order the product from developers. It’s quite a different story, so we’ll save it for later.
In the meantime, do bring your ideas to life, share them with the whole world, and protect your IP rights. Yet, mind that traditional forms of protection offered by lawyers don’t always work. In addition to legal methods (registration of copyrights and patents, or NDAs), don’t hesitate to use business methods: compete on the market using your product’s quality and your solid reputation.
If somebody has already stolen your ideas, and legal methods don’t work in your case, then isn’t it a good motivation to be better than infringers, to think ahead, and improve your product. Meanwhile, the market will dot the i’s, and sometimes even without any lawyers being involved.