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Interviews with App Developers: [dis]regard towards IPR vs. Patent Hype – Part II

Posted by Samantha Cassar at Aug 14, 2014 08:30 PM |
The following is a second post within 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 how these developers responded to a question on legal protection for their works.

Before one can identify the solution, one must first identify the problem. Yet, in order to understand the problem, we must first understand the individuals involved and the how the problem affects these individuals. We hope that the findings of this preliminary research initiative will provide sufficient groundwork to understand the problems that exist and the different ways of approaching them before determining the most suitable prospective option in changes at the policy level. In this case, the individuals under study are the key contributors to the mobile app space within India; and the problem, being those faced by them as they attempt to navigate an emerging and ambiguous ecosystem.

Previously, we looked at responses that were given across these mobile app developers interviewed which revealed how they orient notions of intellectual property within their practice and own products, specifically. Findings that were made included deductions that the majority of those interviewed developed mobile app products for clients, and in turn assigned ownership of their products to their clients. Just as well, they commonly shared an interest in leaving the services sector to create products of their own, with some of them already having made the transition within their business model.

Question 2: “How is your IP protected?”

Next, we asked how they go about protecting their intellectual property to get a feel of who is protecting their apps and who is not. In asking this question, we hoped to learn how they go about protecting their work via legal means. Across their various responses, we observed many patterns and contradictions which are conveyed here with reference to comments made across interviews. It is important to note, however, that no causal relations intend for be argued for, only suggested correlations.

How they responded

When asked, those interviewed responded with a variance in answers. Some simply stated that their work is not protected, while a few mentioned that they acquired trademark or intend to apply for trademark protection. One interviewee had a patent pending in India and the US, as well. In many of our conversations, developers mentioned that their code for their apps is under open source licenses, and a couple others entailed sharing that the content is under creative commons licenses, “individual licenses,” or joint copyright. Additionally, within one interview, one mentioned the use of encryption tools as a technical means of protection for their work.

“The concept of securing IP is relatively new within the Indian context... it becomes a question of priority between innovation and protection" — Aravind Krishnaswamy, Levitum

Of the developers interviewed, many exhibited some sort of confusion or misunderstanding related to the protection of their works by means of intellectual property rights (IPR). Those interviewed seemed to either express an interest to acquire IPR in the future for their products in the forms of patent or trademark protection, or expressed their appreciation for openness source licensing—or both! Beneath these immediate responses, however, many repeated patterns, as well as contradictions, are revealed. Conversations that followed within these interviewed entailed the opportunity to hear from personal experiences and opinions on different areas within their practice intersecting IPR.

Reasons for IPR protection

If a startup or SME is bootstrapped with very little cash flow to begin with, what would provoke or inspire one to pursue the process of acquiring patent protection then? Aravind Krishnaswamy of startup, Levitum, considers “the concept of securing IP is relatively new within the Indian context.” So if this is the case, why did so many developers interviewed express an interest in IPR?

For those who did express interest in acquiring IPR as protection for their mobile app products, most seemed to express an interest in proving ownership over their work, or preventing problems in the future. One developer's commented on how the mobile app market is a “new and potentially volatile area for software development.” For this reason, it was imperative that he and his team attempted to avoid trouble in the future, and ensure that they going about mobile app development the right and moral way.

Within another interview, developer, John Paul of mobile app SME, Plackal, explains his motives for seeking to acquire patent protection, the application for which is currently pending in India and the US: "For us, applying for a patent is primarily defensive. And if it does get infringed upon, it would give us a good opportunity to generate revenue from it." For the company's trademark, they sought to be able to enforce their ownership over their product's brand: “As a precautionary, we've trademarked the app so that should there be a situation where the app is pirated, we can claim ownership for that app.”

Security not so easily attainable

“To some extent, IPR law is only accessible after moving away from the startup phase."—John Paul, Plackal

However, for the startup especially, such protection does not come without a cost. For this reason, IPR is generally perceived as a gamble or tradeoff. It becomes a “question of priority between innovation and protection,” says Krishnaswamy. He continues in saying that, "I feel like even if it’s a great idea if someone else copies it, that’s some level of validation, but as a small company I’d rather be nimble in terms of how we build it up and get it to a certain point. We're trying to move fast and get something going, and then figure it out.” For Krishnaswamy and his team, securing a patent on an area where they feel they feel they have unique work is on their list of things to do, “It's something for us to revisit in the future.”

Paul explains that he and his team didn't always have IPR within reach: “To some extent, IPR law is only accessible after moving away from the startup phase.” So what discourages startups from acquiring IPR, or simply seeking it out?

Patent attorney and IP consultant, Arjun Bala explains that “there is a lot to figure out. One aspect is filling it out, the other is how you write it so that it is easily granted and gives you the right sort of patent protection you are looking for. It is a very complex process that requires a lot of technical and legal expertise.” But even if one successfully manoeuvres the IPR system, is protection guaranteed?

Business Financial Strategist of Out Sourced CFO & Business Advisory Services, Jayant Tewari, illustrates the lack of security for the SME in the patent system, specifically, in saying, “Since a patent becomes public domain on filing, it can be effectively infringed based on the filing, even before it is granted.” Tewari continues in stressing the irrelevance of patents for SMEs due to the difficulty of enforcement: “the infringement will be adjudicated after 2 years at an immense cost to the SME patent-holder, who will go commercially belly-up due to the infringement. The regime does not protect the SME at all.”

“It is easy to say 'this is the method and no once can copy', but unless the look and feel is the same, it is very hard to demonstrate that you have been infringed on.”
—Samuel Mani, Mani Chengappa & Mathur

Nevermind enforcement...

Not only did our interviews shed light on the difficulty for a startup developer to apply for and be granted protection for their intellectual property, but also for the enforcement of such. Partnering Lawyer, Samuel Mani, of technology-focused law firm, Mani Chengappa & Mathur, speaks to us about the extensive procedure required to prove one's ownership over their IP: “To demonstrate copyright infringement, it requires going into millions of lines of code—unless it is the interface that is copied, which is easily visible.” Mani continues on the enforcement of patent protection by saying, “For a patent, the scope is even wider. It is easy to say 'this is the method and no once can copy', but unless the look and feel is the same, it is very hard to demonstrate that you have been infringed on.”

Planting the initial seed

If there is arguably so much risk associated with applying for IPR protection, as well with enforcement, what specifically gets startups thinking about IPR initially within their practice? What experiences help them formulate their opinions on the matter, and which forms of IPR do they seek out?

Across interviews conducted, one particular observation entailed the tendency for developers to have worked in the past for corporate employers that have dealt with cases of infringement or have acquired IP protection. Almost half of those interviewed shared the fact that they worked for a corporate employer and became better familiar with different notions of intellectual property through that experience. It may not be too farfetched to suggest, then, that for the developer the idea of acquiring IPR protection is one that may be reinforced from previous employers or other successful development companies with IPR of their own.

Cofounder and developer for a medium-sized software development enterprise, Anoop[1] explained that it wasn't until after the success of his enterprise's first application with $1 million in sales, that they started thinking about intellectual property and began to understand the value of it. This newly attained understanding, however, had not been enough to sufficiently equip his team with the knowledge to properly secure protection. For them, going after patent protection turned out to be a pursuit in vain.

Loss of faith in patents for SMEs

Anoop shares his disappointing experience after attempting to secure a patent for one of their mobile apps:

“We burned our fingers with patents. We spent a lot of money for a game we invented about 3 years ago. We had a law firm in the US to help us. We applied for it, and it went through 3-4 revisions, costing us $25-30,000. We finally closed the file when we could not get it due to an existing patent. We were really surprised."

After much disappointment from not being successful in their attempts to acquire patent protection, however,  Anoop came out of the experience with a new outlook on patents and their role for SMEs:

“They're meant for large companies as means to bully your competitor. Only big players with the capacity to file for a patent as soon as it takes off benefit. The existing system doesn’t really work for startup companies. In India and anywhere. It’s an expensive process. If you’re a startup who’s just bootstrapping, there’s no guarantee that you will get it. It’s going to take you years.”

Patent hype
Anoop is a prime example of developers in the startup space that fall victim to the promises of the patent system—only to be spat back out having exhausted their time and earnings. Already being aware of the probability for failure, Mani strongly discourages going after patent protection as a means of staying in the race. “With people spending millions on litigation, it is a recipe for disaster, especially considering the inherent delay of the Indian system.” For this reason, Mani stresses the importance of applying for the right protection.

Mani also suggests that the patent debate is driven by self-interest—people who simply make money off of application filing, regardless of whether or not the case succeeds. As a lawyer in the IT space, Mani claims to have turned away several prospective clients looking to patent their products when he insisted that such means of protection was not suitable for their product and interests...which brings us to an additional area of heated debate: the patentability of mobile apps.

Can mobile apps be patented?[2]

One concept that seemed to receive contested responses across interviews is that of the patentability of mobile apps in the first place. When asked if mobile apps could be patented, former lawyer and startup founder, Vivek Durai, of HumblePaper, put it blatantly in responding, “absolutely not.” Others offered explanations of the Indian Patent Law nuances regarding when a mobile app is patentable and when one is not.

While consulting a SME with their own patent application, Bala explains their approach to ensure the mobile app's eligibility for patent protection, while providing some insight into the Indian patent system:

“One approach that we've taken to getting a patent in India is it's not just a pure software, but a software plus a hardware—as in it requires a specific hardware to function. If [the software] makes the hardware perform better, then it has a technical effect... In which case, we have a better chance of getting a patent in India. If your software is agnostic to hardware, however, it is much more difficult to receive a patent in India.”

To patent or not to patent? (or any IPR for that matter)
To Tewari, on the other hand, the question of whether a mobile app can be patented is one entirely irrelevant. The question Tewari introduces into the developer's market strategy is not 'can I patent my app?' but instead, 'should I do so?' In response to which; he would predominantly reply: No.

“How [startup] mobile app developers regard IP laws—or better yet, disregard—is fine for their sake,” argues Tewari. Alternatively, he suggests developers learn how to maneuver the laws, to prevent themselves from arriving at any sticky situations after unknowingly using another's code. To his clients who have mobile apps of their own, he advises to use an open source equivalent of a piece of code if they do not have the rights to it. Doing so will help keep infringement upon others at a minimal and prevent litigation against oneself.

“How [startup] mobile app developers regard IP laws—or better yet, disregard—is fine for their sake."—Jayant Tewari, Out Sourced CFO & Business Advisory Services

Not all developers interviewed, however, aspired to acquiring patent protection. In fact, some strongly opposed software patents, while expressing their appreciation for openness across the developer community. The other side to the IPR-Open Source dichotomy will be examined in the blog post to follow, after which, we will then look at accounts of infringement and threats of litigation across mobile app developers interviewed.

To recap

By looking closely at the individual experiences across mobile app developers interviewed, we hope to begin to map out the mobile app ecosystem and the ways in which industry players engage with each other regarding their IPR. We also hope to begin to shed light on the different attitudes towards the law within one's practice, and how they shape their decisions related to their work. Only after doing so, may we be able to sufficiently assess how India's current IP laws govern this landscape.

Stay tuned for the next in this blog series! We hope that you may benefit from our findings in your own practice as a mobile app industry player or enthusiast, as well.

[1] Name changed to protect the interviewee's identity

[2] In conducting interviews, our goal was not to test the legitimacy of responses, but instead, to map them out across various industry stakeholders. For this reason, this blog series will not be able to sufficiently respond to legal question, such as whether or not mobile apps are patentable to begin with. We intend to, however, undergo legal analysis of the Indian IPR system at its intersection with the mobile app space in India at a later stage in this project.