App Developer Legal Issues: API TOUs, Copyright and Trademark

Our Twitter chat last week with technology and entertainment lawyer Joy Butler highlighted legal issues with app development, including contract issues between app developers and clients, on one end, and intellectual property (IP) and API issues between the app and the intended development platform, on the other end.

Privacy issues become pressing later when the app goes public for end users, although the biggest privacy problems tend to arise when app publishers get tripped up by commitments made in their own end user license agreements (EULAs) or privacy policies, more so than from any violations of privacy laws.  More on privacy and the app/API problems in a separate blog post.

Immediate issues are copyright and trademark, both governed by federal laws, but also governed by API terms of use and similar application development agreements with hosting platforms.  Apple’s software developer kits (SDK) for the iPad and iPhone encompass similar purposes as part of broader packages of developer protocols for use of those APIs.

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UMissouri Claims Rights to Student’s iPhone App – then Doesn’t

The Associated Press reported yesterday about a University of Missouri student who invented an iPhone app in a class, then was successful in generating more than 250,000 downloads of the app, and finally was contacted by lawyers for the University demanding a 25% royalty on all earnings from the app.

According to the AP, the student, Tony Brown, was also given the celebrity treatment by Apple and wooed for technology jobs by Google and other companies.

Ultimately, Missouri backed down, but not before overhauling the University’s technology transfer policies, at least as they relate to student development and ownership of intellectual property.  In this case, “Inventions” and copyrights that might be considered “work-for-hire”. Continue reading