App Law: Copyright and Trade Secrets

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A company approaches you to engage in a “partner” agreement - maybe a joint venture, a licensing deal, a software integration or a reseller arrangement. During negotiations, the other company reviews your technology. Negotiations breakdown when you realize that the other company has launched a competitive knock-off product that looks shockingly similar to your own beta version that you disclosed to them. Now what do you do?

According to app developer Spry Fox this is what happened in their negotiations with app developer LOLapps. LOLapps abruptly broke off negotiations and launched their own app, “Yeti Town” which has similar design elements. In its complaint Spry Fox claims that “Yeti Town is a virtual duplicate of the Triple Town game,” and the lawsuit alleges copyright infringement. Lessons for business?

  • Ensure that you have a well-drafted non-disclosure agreement (NDA) covering your negotiations. This agreement can address issues of confidentiality, and it may be appropriate to also deal with non-use, non-competition and non-solicitation issues. Not all NDAs are created equal!
  • Be aware that “ideas” alone are very difficult to protect. While copyright protection exists for the software code, the basic concept may not be protectable by copyright (see this App Law Round-Up for an example). That’s where the NDA comes in, since it imposes contractual obligations to maintain the confidentiality of trade secrets, even where there may be no copyright protection for the concepts.  
  • Exceptions that are commonly built into NDAs may provide an “out” for your competitor. In any event, even the best NDA cannot prevent a determined competitor from poaching your concept - the question then is whether the competitor’s conduct runs afoul of the law of copyright (as is alleged in the Spry Fox case), or constitutes a breach of the terms of the NDA, or both.

Related Reading: Someone Stole Your Brilliant Business Idea?