The creation and use of apps by more and more businesses is perhaps unsurprising given how many people own a tablet and/or a smart phone. You can now find apps for almost anything, from gaming to shopping, or from fitness to places to go and eat. Some of the world's current most recognisable brands started as apps (ANGRY BIRDS), or now make substantial use of them (MINECRAFT). Apps may be protected by a variety of intellectual property rights, such as copyright in the underlying software, text and graphics used within the app, patent protection for innovative technological functions and there may also be registered trade mark rights in the branding, text and advertising. Safe to say the world of apps is big business. As is ever the case when something takes off, people are trying to take advantage of this, and not always legally.

This is perfectly illustrated by a fake MINECRAFT app which was recently released onto the Apple app store. The fake app quickly made its way towards the top of the most downloaded paid for apps which will have required thousands of downloads. It certainly looked legitimate and attempted to sell itself as a sequel to the extremely popular open world building game. This was achieved by using screenshots with slightly upgraded graphics, seemingly genuine 5 star reviews from users and even charging the same price as the real MINECRAFT app created by the Swedish video game developers Mojang. Once your money had been paid and the app downloaded what you actually received was a very simple 2D zombie game.

The app was very quickly taken down when people started complaining to Mojang (who filed an infringement notice with Apple) but the damage had already been done. Due to the nature of MINECRAFT's end consumer (primarily young people) the reputation of MINECRAFT will have taken a hit due to disappointed customers. This will only have been made worse by the end-user being relatively unsophisticated and probably unlikely to understand the world of fake computer code and the infringement of intellectual property. 

What this story also highlights is that a large amount of computer code out there is designed to clone popular apps so that they can be 're-skinned' and used to piggy-back on the reputation of the genuine product. Whilst many of these will not be apps you have to pay for to download, there is money to be made from advertising. There is also the risk that the game may go wrong with no support to help fix the issue (damaging the true owner's reputation), or, even worse, malicious viruses or malware could be included with the app download.

The issue currently seems most prevalent in the world of mobile gaming (perhaps due to it being easier to catch out younger users who primarily play these games), but that is not to say other genres of app are not or will not be targeted. There are currently whole communities where the code for the cloned apps can be purchased from coding marketplaces and used to catch out the unsuspecting.

Our Comments

This story highlights the risks that are being faced by those businesses which utilise mobile apps. The first IP owners may know of an issue is when one of these fake apps comes to their attention, usually due to a disgruntled consumer. However, with the fake code being readily available, for every app you successfully take down several more may spring up in its place.

Monitoring these online communities and taking down the cloned code at source could save significant amounts of time and money. Instead of dealing with the apps once created, IP owners could bring one action against the actual infringing code, rather than having to bring tens or hundreds of actions against final products. Consequently, if apps form part of an IP owner's business they should seriously consider adding the monitoring of coding marketplaces to their protection sweep alongside other tools such as trade mark watches and customs declarations notices.