How to Protect App Ideas

There is no legal protection for ideas. Trademark, copyright, and patent laws protect the expression of ideas, not the ideas themselves. Protecting your potentially very valuable app concept is crucial, especially during developmental stages. Although no legal filings can protect your app idea, below are five effective ways to protect yourself from idea pirates before publishing.

Share Information Selectively

A simple way to protect your app idea is to share it sparingly. Although explaining your app idea is necessary in some cases—pitching to clients, sharing details with contract workers, and other instances—you don't need to explain every detail of your budding brain child. The less you reveal of your product or service, the less likely someone steals it. It may seem like common sense, but some enthusiast app creators may feel compelled to share their game-changing idea with whoever will listen. However, selectively sharing your app idea may provide valuable insight from credible people: credible being the operative word.

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Carefully Choose Professional Relationships

It's crucial to only work with reputable individuals or companies. Unless you're planning on creating your new app without outsourcing development or design, you'll need to hire outside help. Before doing so, screen any and all third parties carefully. Review their website, read testimonials, and contact past clients. Reputable developers and third-party contractors will have little problem offering you most of the information you request. By working solely with professional service companies built on integrity, you significantly lessen the chance of underhanded dealings and idea theft.     

Remember, the expression of ideas are protected by copyright laws, not the ideas themselves. Technically, a third-party developer or designer owns the application once the app's code and design is created. Have a contract beforehand that expresses all copyrights of the app are to be released to you once the project is complete. However, the developer still owns the intellectual property of the inherent, generic code to create the app. Simple written agreements between you and outsourced services can offer your idea protection while protecting the intellectual property of the developer.

Always Use Non-Disclosure Agreements

Protect your app idea when revealing it to others. A non-disclosure agreement, or NDA, is simply a way to ensure that all shared information is confidential between two parties. It protects your app idea from being shared or reused by others involved with your project. Whether it's outsourced contractors, consultants, associates, potential clients, or investors, an NDA provides you with a certain level of protection. However, it is not an absolute guarantee your idea is 100 percent safe. This is why an NDA, along with working with reputable companies, is important.

Some investors may be hesitant to sign an NDA, especially before speaking with them. To gain investors, you may need to offer broad strokes of your project before requiring a signature on an NDA. Or, you could include a confidentiality agreement within your business plan that is given to potential investors.

Trademark Your Name

Obtaining a patent can be an expensive and drawn-out process. Patent laws also protect processes, but an idea cannot be patented. However, it is wise to trademark your name and brand while the app is in development stages. Trademark laws protect source identifiers. In other words, your logos, taglines, and website will be trademarked to identify your brand with your mobile app once it's published.

Although a trademark does not actually protect the idea of your app, the documentation required to register a trademark does serve to "mark" a set point-in-time. If someone ever tries to dispute the timing of idea development, this documentation may be important in establishing dates.

Turn Your Idea Into a Reality

Copyright protection is only offered once the app is built. As stated before, copyright laws only pertain to the concrete expression of ideas, not the ideas themselves. So, in reality, the easiest and safest way to protect your app idea is to turn it into a working app. Once the app is developed—and copyrights are released by third parties—your app's code and design are protected. No one can reverse engineer or outright steal your code.

Knock-offs may be a problem, especially if your app is good. Although your app is now developed, published, and available to the public, you can still protect certain ideas pertaining to your app. Intentionally leave some functionality out of the first version and rollout new features regularly. Remember, in competition, protecting ideas is an ongoing practice.

There is no clear-cut legal process to protect ideas. However, prudent business practices and smart decision-making provide excellent protection from would-be idea thieves. Also, the best way to protect an idea is to make it a successful one, as infringement protection is typically reserved for the successful. Every million-dollar product begins with a nickel-worth of thoughts, so never underestimate the value of a good idea.