What would you do if you came across a complete, unauthorized copy of something you worked very hard to create from the ground up? It would be shocking, frustrating, and demoralizing to say the least, especially if the copied item is the centerpiece of your business and livelihood. Unfortunately, this happens all the time to app developers. App content is stolen for all kinds of reasons, but one of the most damaging for the app developer, as well as the consumer, involves tricking customers into downloading a copycat app disguised as the original. Once the fraudulent app has been downloaded, malware is planted in the device – harming the consumer – then the ad revenue meant for the original app is compromised by the cybercriminal, leaving the developer without revenue, as well as a tarnished brand.
Copying an app without permission is copyright infringement. The victim of copyright theft can seek injunctions and even monetary damages, but having the infringing app taken down or seeking other remedies are not always easy processes, especially for small companies. For example, bringing a lawsuit for infringement can be extremely expensive and not worth the time and resources it would take to sue. There are less costly options, but they can be difficult to execute. Each of the platform companies—Apple, Google, and Microsoft—have processes by which they consider requests to remove allegedly infringing content. However, requests can get lost in the mix. This is where ACT | The App Association can help raise the voice of a single developer by joining it with the voices of all of them. The vivid (and frustrating) example below from Susy Christiansen, CEO of App Association member Busy Bee Studios describes the company’s experience of having their content stolen:
My company, Busy Bee Studios, is a small digital creative house based in Southern California. We entered into the app market in 2010 with a preschool educational game called Zoo Train. At that time, the app market was new and not yet so crowded, so our app enjoyed a spot in the Top 10 of the kids’ charts for two to three years before the big players started entering into the market. We received emails from parents all over the country letting us know how much their kids enjoyed our app and found that it was instrumental in helping some kids on the spectrum; one boy began to vocalize letters for the first time using Zoo Train, and another mom said it was the only way she could get her autistic son to calm down enough for a haircut. A small thing to most of us, but she was gushing in her thanks for allowing this small miracle to happen for her son.
During that time, when Zoo Train was seeing some success in both the Google Play and Apple App Store markets, I found an app in the Google Play store also titled “Zoo Train” that was using our art and marketing material – their app appeared to be 100 percent our intellectual property. I downloaded the free app and discovered it was a sort of spam trap for kids – once you installed it, you were spammed with countless ads. I was horrified to discover that they were using our growing brand, which we worked hard to build, to lure and trick parents of 4 to 6-year-olds into downloading the app, only to attack them with inappropriate ads and content.
I immediately contacted Google, assuming they would be as interested as I was in taking down the offending app from their store. But after several attempts to contact them through a generic contact form, the only developer communication tool they had at the time, I received absolutely no response other than an auto-reply email. I unsuccessfully scoured the web for any direct way to communicate, but it was clear they were set up to discourage this, and I had no other path to take. It was then that I turned to ACT | The App Association for help. They were not only quick in their response, but they were proactive in helping me draft a letter to Google describing the situation and helping me identify the right people at Google to send it to. This seemed to get Google’s attention, and they quickly took the app down.
As a small developer, I do not have the financial resources to hire an attorney and would not have been able to address the situation without the App Association’s assistance. Without their aid, the app would likely still be there preying on preschoolers, our revenue stream would certainly be diminished, and our brand reputation would have been affected, negatively impacting other areas of our small business.
I was grateful for the App Association’s help, and I have since let other small developers know about the stellar work they are doing to protect our legal interests and rights. Unfortunately, in normal day-to-day business, a single voice did not succeed in calling Google’s attention to even a flagrant violation like this one, though it was clearly trampling on our intellectual property rights and their store policies. A group like the App Association is the voice that a small developer like Busy Bee Studios needs to allow us to be heard alongside the major companies and brands that tend to get most of the attention from big players.
“I was grateful for the App Association’s help, and I have since let other small developers know about the stellar work they are doing to protect our legal interests and rights.”
While not every developer will have the entirety of their app stolen, it is important to remember that any facet of our app is considered our intellectual property. Those unique aspects of our games, whether it is music, characters, game play, or design, should have strong IP and copyright protections. The platforms have processes in place to help small businesses like ours when copyright and IP violations occur. Additionally, it is important that developers understand how they can protect their work, and how they can work with the platforms to address IP violations. Protecting what makes us unique will help small businesses continue to grow, to bring new products to our customers, and to support the developers, artists, and other creative talent that we hire. Without that support, and without groups like the App Association, our voice would quickly get drowned out.