App developers sometimes ask me what they should do when their features, designs, or entire apps are copied by competitors.
Legally, there’s not a lot you can do about it:
- Copyright protects your icon, images, other creative resources, and source code. You automatically have copyright protection, but it’s easy to evade with minor variations.1 App stores don’t enforce it easily unless resources have been copied exactly.
- Trademarks protect names, logos, and slogans. They cover minor variations as well, and app stores enforce trademarks more easily, but they’re costly to register and only apply in narrow areas.2
Don’t be an asshole or a fool. Don’t get software patents.
If someone literally copied your assets or got too close to your trademarked name, you need to file takedowns or legal complaints, but that’s rarely done by anyone big enough to matter. If a competitor just adds a feature or design similar to one of yours, you usually can’t do anything.
You can publicly call out a copy, but you won’t come out of it looking good:
- If they’re more successful than you, it’s envy and sour grapes.
- If they’re less successful than you, it’s jealousy and punching down (and giving them attention!).
- The public may have a very different opinion on whether you’re really being copied from, whether you were really the first to do it, or whether you deserve to “own” it.
These disputes are best kept private, or not fought at all.
Nobody else will care as much as you do. Nobody cares who was first, and nobody cares who copied who. The public won’t defend you.
The instant someone else has the same feature or design as you, the public and press see it as a collective checkbox feature, or a “standard” or “obvious” design, that apps in this category just have. It’s no longer yours.
You can try to “educate” the public, but you’ll lose.
This feels unfair when it happens to you, but it’s just how it goes, and the entire ecosystem benefits. Every app — even yours — includes countless “standard” and “obvious” features and designs that, at one time, weren’t. Everything is a remix.
A great design or feature can give you a competitive advantage for a little while, but it’s always temporary. Compete on marketing, quality, and what you can do next, not the assumption that nobody can copy what you made.
Setting the roadmap for competitors is a satisfying accomplishment, but only a personal one. You know you’ve done it. That has to be enough.
For instance, nobody else can make an app that uses Overcast’s exact icon, or anything clearly derivative of it, but I can’t stop anyone from making a different-looking, originally-drawn orange icon with a radio tower in it. ↩︎
For instance, nobody else can make an audio player named Overcast or anything similar to it, but I can’t stop anyone from making a weather app with that name. And other podcast players can’t make features named Smart Speed or Voice Boost, but I can’t stop them from making similar features with different-enough names. ↩︎