Interviews with App Developers: Name of the Game (Part IV)

Posted by Samantha Cassar at Mar 24, 2015 09:00 AM |
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The following is a concluding piece in a series reporting on interviews conducted with 10 of Bangalore's mobile app developers and other industry stakeholders. Within this research, CIS attempts to understand how they engage with the law within their practice, particularly with respect to IP. Here we examine responses given across interviews regarding instances of infringement of IP within their work.

Before commencing our interviews with India's mobile app developers and other industry players, a small series of questions had been devised in hopes of enabling us a glimpse at the facets of the picture of our main interest: those related to intellectual property. What we soon came to find, was that these questions may have too bluntly stated, producing hesitant and wary responses from those interviewed. After breaking this immediate ice, however, we often were given the privilege of hearing from these talented and thoughtful individuals several times over. And it is through this set of questions that the space was created for us to work together to reach an understanding of how different types of players orient themselves within the industry, in relation to their practices, policies, and business relationships, and voice any concerns or questions of their own.

The last of these questions to look at, is arguably the most sensitive in nature, asking whether one has ever had their works infringed upon, or has been accused for infringement upon those of others. In asking this question, we had hoped to gain some insight about occurrences of infringement taking place within the mobile app ecosystem, how this occurs, and in what sort of context.

Preceding conversations revealed differing experiences related to infringement; some experiences common across most, while others limited to one or two individuals. What these experiences, in turn, revealed, is what seems to be polarized stances on the very notion of infringement, reflecting personal histories and differing interests.

But what even is “infringement?” The term may be generally defined as:

infringement

noun

The action of breaking the terms of a law, agreement, etc.; a violation

But what exactly does this mean for a mobile app developer? Having not been previously defined or explained to those interviewed, the term had been used across responses in reference to various instances of infringement, spanning across many areas related to mobile app development. These instances will be looked at to follow.

  • Mobile app content (i.e. logos, pictures, etc.)
  • Pirated apps in app stores
  • “Dummy apps” or imitations of another's app
  • Breaching app stores user agreement
  • License agreements of code created by another
  • Open source licenses
  • Breaching of terms of agreement for by commissioning clients
  • Breaching of terms of agreement for by those hired

Not a threat to the threatening

After implying that his enterprise uses components that are owned by another without the proper permission to do so (whether source code or visual components was not specified), one developer simply stated that “no one would come after us—we have no money!” IP Strategy Consultant, Arjun Bala, explained to us that “here, developers do not need to worry about being sued. The big companies do not go after small developers; it depends on how much money they're making.” Bala continues in saying that, “Patent lawsuits can cost something like millions of dollars, so unless they're going to get more back, they wouldn't go throught the trouble of doing so... but that is true even in the US.”

This soon revealed to be a demonstrated theme known across those within the developer ecosystem. Developer, Aravind Krishnaswamy stated that the “startup mentality is to break all of the rules first, then concern themselves with IP as a means of covering their own tracks.” There is a perceivable difference, he says in their motives regulating their behaviours that differ from “I shouldn't do this because I can get caught vs. I shouldn't do this because it's against the law.”

Towards being infringed upon

For those within service agreements, this was generally so due to the fact that one does not own their works and instead assigns ownership to their mobile apps to clients. Rahul of Uncommon explains that any cases of infringement upon their work is unconcerning to his team: “Because once we hand it off [to clients], it's their issue,” he says.

Contrasting to this perspective, however, is the apprehension exhibited by some towards not clearly knowing whether they are incidently infringing upon others people's work. Because of this unknowing, however, others are indifferent. "There's a few people who I think looked at what we're doing and tried to copy some of the features or just the positioning,” Krishnaswamy suspects, “but, ultimately there are some things you can be bothered about as a small company.” He continues in saying that those suspects to be copying you “could have been working on their product independently—it's quite possible.”

Sree of Mahiti, on the other hand is not too concerned about others infringing upon their products or copying them as such is “irrelevant to their business model.” In making their software products open source, Sree explains, that they do not care how people use it, but if he were to come across infringement, he would likely act upon it.

But how can one be indifferent to infringement while licensing under GNU, a perpetual copyleft license?

Name of the game

Perhaps one could even go a step further in arguing that being a developer (a startup developer, especially) necessitates bending the rules at some point. Of all of the bits of open source code used, how many of the licenses are actually considered and complied to in their entirety? As stated by Vivek Durai of Humble Paper: “In a mobile app where you're producing software, you could potentially be violating the terms of OS licenses.” Tewari argues that this actually occurs in pretty much all cases.

“Everyone is in non-compliance. That is a given,” Tewari asserts. However, the distinction he makes is that more corporate players are in non-compliance knowingly than not, where is more SMEs infringe upon others without being aware that they are. Just as well, the degree to which infringement takes place may differ between the two types of industry players: “At the corporate level, where they know they are not in compliance, the degree of non-compliance might be very small or specific, but it still exists.” On the other hand, for startup developers, a substantial amount of their code may not comply with the licenses and agreements they are obliged to—something that could pose problems for them later down the road if left unfixed.

“Everyone is in non-compliance. That is a given... It is similar to asking 'do I know anyone who has never paid a bribe?' My answer is no.”

To put simply, Tewari draws the following comparison “It is similar to asking 'do I know anyone who has never paid a bribe?' My answer is no.” Here, he suggests that non-compliance to legal agreement, although technically unjust, is as tacit to the software sector as bribes are to the justice sector. Although perhaps not a perfect comparison, it definitely helps to put things into perspective.

Mope App Matrix

After speaking with numerous mobile app developers, lawyers, and other community players, it is difficult to say whether our findings have brought clarity to the nature the problem at hand, or if our research has, instead, shed light on additional problems within our realm of vision—at varying heights and depths, cutting across one another to form a matrix of indivisible linkages, or just plain chaos.

In the next of our exercises, we hope to comprehensively illustrate this matrix, by categorizing the different stakeholders across this ecosystem according to their interests and the ways in which they operate, and in turn, affect each other.

We look forward to bringing to completion (even if only to return to later) the first of our stages within this chapter of the Pervasive Technologies Project, which, to recap, had initially been to understand the mobile app ecosystem in light of India's IP regime. But what we are arriving at may be regarded, instead, as an understanding of the ecosystem informed by the stories and experiences of the ecosystem's central organisms: its developers. Perhaps it can only be here, at the intersection of stories—whether complementary or contradictory in nature—where the intricacies of processes deeply-embedded and their implications begin to reveal themselves.

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Samantha Cassar

Samantha is from the University of Toronto, and has been undertaking preliminary policy research for the Centre for Internet & Society looking at the legal aspects of India's mobile app ecosystem to better enable developers within it. Her research has involved interviews with mobile app developers and other community members, as well as a nation-wide industry survey on legal practices within mobile app development.