'Flappy Bird' was a devilishly simple gaming app that became a viral app sensation.  The popularity of the app spawned a multitude of 'Flappy' clones most notably 'Flappy Bee', which soared to number four overall on the Apple US app store even before the creator of Flappy Bird removed his app and opened the Flappy clone floodgates.

As well as being similar to the Flappy Bird app, Flappy Bee was also visually almost identical to the 'Bee Leader' app designed by New Zealand developer Flightless. Flappy Bee appeared to copy the Bee Leader app icon, main character and background visuals.

This one incident illustrates the global arena in which app developers operate, and the irrelevance of national borders: the Flappy Bee app was created by a European app designer, inspired by the app of a Vietnamese developer, sold globally through a US app marketplace and appearing to infringe the copyright of a New Zealand app developer.  In circumstances like these, how does a small app developer even start to go about protecting their intellectual property?

Unfortunately, there is no global copyright police force championing the legal rights of copyright owners the world over and the enforcement of copyright remains a private exercise. Resort to the courts is not only often outside the budget of most app developers, but can often be a slow and territory specific system that can be out of sync with the global and fast paced world of app development.

A pragmatic solution for those who consider that the copyright in their app has been infringed is to complain directly to the app marketplace where the infringing app is offered for download.

The Apple and Google Play app marketplaces have simple, free complaints procedures for apps sold on their platforms that infringe the copyright in another party's work:

Both procedures require the following to initiate a complaint:

  • Identification of the copyright work claimed to have been infringed
  • Directions to where/how the copyright work is published (such as a URL location, or the title of a published work including a pinpoint reference to the material that has been infringed)
  • Identification of the material that is claimed to be infringing and the URL of the infringing app's location within the relevant app marketplace.

Once a complaint has been submitted, Apple passes the details of the complaint onto the allegedly infringing developer, so that the parties can attempt to resolve the issue between themselves. However, Apple does not commit to taking any action or passing any judgment.  Google does take a more active role in assessing complaints, and – as does Apple – has the right in its contracts with developers to remove from the platform apps which it considers to be infringing.  In practice, we expect it unlikely that either company would remove an app for copyright infringement in all but the most clear-cut of violations.

As the Flappy Bee app story illustrates, these mechanisms can be effective – the Flappy Bee developer was ordered by the Apple app store to change the app's name due to its apparent attempt to leverage off the Flappy Bird phenomenon, and the app no longer uses the Bee Leader artwork, suggesting that Flightless was also able to find success using the complaints procedure.