One of the most frequent questions I get asked is how a client can protect the ideas in the new mobile app she is creating. The three most common ways of protecting IP are patents, copyrights, and trademarks. Unfortunately, none of these are effective in protecting a developer’s idea. A patent protects an idea but it is highly unlikely that the idea underlying a mobile app—no matter how clever—rises to the level of novelty required for patent protection. So, what about copyrights? Well, a copyright only protects the expression of the idea—not the idea itself. That means a copyright can protect your source code and maybe even the look and feel of your app but not the concept of the app itself. Finally, there are trademarks. Trademarks, however, only protect your brand—not your idea. Is there anything you can do? Kind of. You can protect your ideas before the mobile app is launched using the oft forgotten concept of trade secrets.
When I talk to business owners who are reluctant to store their customer information in the cloud, they most often tell me that they do not want to use the cloud because of the duty they owe to their customers to protect that data. Many of us are control freaks and we think that if we physically keep the files on our own laptops, on our own flash-drives, or on our own servers, we can better protect this data. This stands to reason because who will take more care with our customers’ data than we ourselves? This seems reasonable…until a tornado or a hurricane or a flood comes along.
If you are confused by legal mumbo jumbo, you certainly aren’t alone. Sometimes, the way attorneys write is confusing even to other lawyers. Even though there is a shift in the law toward writing contracts in more “human-friendly” ways, capitalized common words that aren’t usually capitalized, WORDS IN ALL CAPS, and specific words and phrases (known as terms of art) are there because of their legal significance. Some things cannot be de-legalesed. I hope after you read this, you will understand contracts a little bit better.
You got that, right? When you are using a mobile app, you are “signing” a contract with the app provider.
So, what is a double-sided marketplace (or, a two-sided marketplace)? We use these marketplaces every day but most people have never heard this term. A double-sided marketplace is essentially a marketplace that brings together two categories of users who need each other to be successful. One of the most familiar examples is Uber®. Uber requires both drivers and passengers; otherwise it would not be a business. Other examples include matchmaking businesses such as Match®, business review platforms such as Yelp®, and sites like eBay® that bring together buyers and sellers.
These double-sided marketplaces are especially prevalent in the mobile app world but these marketplaces have an unusual legal risk associated with them. This risk revolves around the lack of control over the users.
Software as a Service, or SaaS, as it is more commonly known, is a method for delivering software through an internet browser. The user simply types in a URL and then enters a username and password to access the program. This delivery model is very different from a licensing scheme where the user downloads the software from the internet or goes to Best Buy® and buys it off the shelf before installing it onto her own personal computer or company server. There are many benefits to SaaS, such as access from any internet-enabled device, scalability to many users, and automatic upgrades, but along with these conveniences comes a unique set of liability and content ownership issues. Most of the issues stem from the fact that because the software is not installed on the user’s own server, it is not within the user’s direct control.
What do chickens and eggs have to do with trademarks? Nothing, really. I just thought about that question when I was talking to a client who was trying to decide whether he should file a trademark application for his company’s name or his company’s logo first. And, as any good attorney will tell you—it depends—but usually it should be the chicken (I mean, the company’s name). Why should the company’s name be filed first? To save you money.
There are all kinds of do-it-yourself legal services out there today. Many people use LegalZoom and Google to create legal agreements to memorialize business deals with their customers and clients. (See "Top 10 reasons why a contract should not be a DIY project".) However, one thing internet tools can’t do is review the contracts you receive from service providers. This review is necessary to make sure you are not agreeing to provisions that can potentially cost you thousands of dollars and major legal headaches in the future. For that, you must hire a real live attorney.
We live in a DIY society. The incredible success of Pinterest® is based on this DIY mindset. In addition, there is a plethora of legal advice and information online these days. Because of this, even the smartest of people—actually, mainly the smartest of people—decide they don’t need to hire an attorney to write contracts for them. If you are one of these smart people, you probably think you can DIY legal matters such as starting your business, hiring an independent contractor, forming a joint venture, licensing the cool new app you developed, or transacting a multitude of other business arrangements simply by using Google® or going to LegalZoom® to find fill-in-the-blank forms.
These forms are typically legally sound. The companies that provide these forms are reputable and well known in the community. So, why shouldn’t you use these forms to enter into business arrangements with others?