Why (Not) Patent Your App Before It’s Out?

If there’s one gigantic discovery that the internet revealed to us in the last decade, we can probably all agree on – it’s the leak. From the Wikileaks’ documents that reshaped the landscape of political agenda worldwide to the private iCloud security breaches resulting in A-list celebrities’ personal data leaks, no doubt data leaks present a serious issue in the world of digital media. Production leaks have a huge pain in the neck of tech companies as well.

Ever since iPhone 5, the magic of presentations has almost been gone, as the leaks preceding an official release months and months before it happens, are too goddamn accurate.

This week’s newest episode of Game of Thrones has been leaked landing a shot at the HBO’s ratings. All of a sudden nothing seems to be secure anymore and without a doubt, this became a business issue. An issue that overlapped the old clumsy paper-based legislation.

In this article, I’m going to analyze the potential risks of a mobile application idea leak, the specifics of copyrighted work in an outsourced business model, and the ways to deal with all that.

So You Have An App Idea

Every startup begins with an idea ?  There, I said it. Now before you shut this thing down, let me say that ideas are everywhere. Every single person you meet either has, had, or will have a life-changing idea.

The question is whether they are witty, disciplined, and ballsy enough to execute it. There are some pretty vocal pieces on how things work and I don’t want to go down that rabbit hole, instead, I’d like to figure out how to bring that idea to life if it is viable or move on to the next one if it is not.

So let’s say your idea is backed by a prolific market research, you are not trusting judgment instead of user knowledge, and you have an initial budget. If you are not qualified to implement your app idea technically, most likely you’ll have to find a trusted third-party developer to build it for you.

This is where usually the patent thoughts occur… and oddly enough, this might be your ultimate showstopper.  And here’s why.

App Idea Disclosure Paradox

At an early stage of production, you have nothing more than an idea. It might be even documented, but this is not enough to have it patented. In order to file a patent, you need to present the PDF documents of your app’s screens design and features/functions description. To get a faster approval from the patent office, you have to come up with an almost finished and polished prototype of the app with wireframes and flowcharts.

Once you apply for the patent, it might take up to a year for it to get approved which if it does, will leave you with a provisional patent valid for a one-year period, the time you are supposed to bring your app to the market for. If you manage to deliver an MVP during that time, your next step is going to be filing a nonprovisional patent. This might take up to three years to approve and costs significantly more than the first one.

So before your app is even done, you have to have a clear-cut documentation on how it will look, feel, and work? Unless you carried your idea for decades and had the design and architecture come to you in a dream like Dmitri Mendeleev, this seems unreal.

The essence of app development process if revealed through discoveries, changes, and often times fights. Pressure creates diamonds. Iterations create great digital products.

Truth is, you can’t keep your idea to yourself if you can’t implement it. You can’t make it public and give edge to the competition either.

Early on, most of your energy and money have to be spent on getting something done in flesh. In the app business where virality is half the battle and being sensitive to the trends is the other half, every day counts. Trust me, we’ve been involved in the projects where application development took twice as long as it was supposed to. No one needs dated apps. In order to hit the trend and get the best out of a mobile app short lifespan, you can’t stall your project and lose flexibility. Not to mention the fact that you might have an epiphany that would change it all.

patent meme

So is this a vicious circle situation? Barely. You can protect your idea and not invest into patenting the wrong/early idea. You can kill two birds with one stone just by applying a smart strategy and finding ethical and trustworthy partners. Let’s start with the first aspect.

Fractional Information Sharing

In a scenario where you hire a freelancer, say for the UI/UX app design, you don’t have to give them the entire array of application features. Instead, their job is to help you fulfill the business logic of the app and be of benefit to your users.

The UI/UX design is perhaps the most embracive part of the app development where you will have to unveil the idea to the bone. However, a good designer is not just an executant, they are more of a co-creators. So for the same money, you are getting the wireframes done and have your ideas enhanced with their vision and experience while remaining the owner of the project. The key aspect thus is finding the right designer/team. We’ll get to that later.

As for the development team, their knowledge of business logic doesn’t have to go that deep. Moreover, agile methodology that most development agencies stick to requires delivering tangible output every week. This means you can give out features in a chaotic order and only have them aligned at the final stage of the process. This requires a lot of managerial skills, but it’s the most rewarding approach.

Non-disclosure Agreements

If you can’t go without some sort of copyright paperwork signed before the app gains momentum, a nondisclosure agreement (NDA) is perhaps the best option. Basically, NDA makes sure your communication with contractors or a development agency is locked between these two parties. It protects the design, ideas, and tangible concepts from reuse.

However, developers are not the ones who should be feared in this case. If you are looking for investors, sponsors, or someone to fund your project this is the area to watch out. In your quest for a comrade, you might leak your idea to a scam artist. NDAs feel more useful in this case, as developers are usually interested in a long relationship as opposed to the one-off investor pitches.  

Copyright & Non-compete

A copyright is not the same as idea patent as it only covers the material parts of a product, such as UI elements, identity, slogans, code snippets or the entire massive of lines of code. In terms of code steal prevention, this is the ultimate weapon, however, the idea and the sole of a product can’t be protected by copyright. All you can be sure about is your app will not get replicated.

A noncompete is a bit more tricky as it does not concern the inside of the product, but rather restricts your contractors’ or hired team’s ability to work with your direct rivals. As an ethical development agency, we are reluctant to signing these type of agreements as they just barely prevent idea leak, but can legally deprive us of interesting projects that have nothing to do with the one under obligation. However, we’ll do that if we have faith in the product and it resonates with us.


You can put in time and effort in creating a secure environment to unfold your idea in but it will fail epically if the people you gather around you are not the right people. The common practice of hiring an outsourced team is hitting the rock bottom price-wise and being “okay” with the quality of work they deliver. After all, this is just to make an MVP, right? Wrong. The MVP has to morph into a robust product seamlessly and without losing its following.

This is only possible in case of a natural alliance with a team sharing your core values, showcasing strong ethics, and tuned into a long and productive work. We don’t like non-compete agreements for that reason. Every product we approach becomes partially our own. We don’t sell out. We don’t steal. Here’s our story on how to retain ethics in development and not sell out.

If you are concerned with the integrity of your product and it’s uniqueness, invest some diligence into finding an organization that holds itself to the highest moral criteria. In this case, you won’t have to deal with all the loopholes and can concentrate on what counts – running your company and outsmarting your competition. Dictate the pace, set the trend, build an empire, and then sit back and let your lawyers bust whoever’s messing with you.

A battle-ready Development Team
Building for crazy startups and reputable businesses.
Written by Moses Kim
August 08, 2017