How should developers react to copycat apps?

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From a quick glance, The Candy Monster and Cut the Rope appear to be the same game. Both feature round, green monsters in search of sugary snacks.  Both monsters have large black and white eyes and similarly shaped teeth. And the aim of both games is guide the monster along a rope-filled course in order to eat a swirly piece of red and cream colored candy. Both games have cardboard box backgrounds and are self-described physics-based puzzle games.

Cut the Rope, Candy Monster

Cut the Rope and The Candy Monster show many similarities.

There is a difference, however. Chillingo's Cut the Rope has been available since 2010 and spans multiple platforms. The Candy Monster premiered in 2012. Curatus Technocorp, the team behind The Candy Monster, did not respond to requests for comment.

Chillingo isn't the first company to be subject to cheap imitations. Such photocopying spans all types of verticals, and while it is simpler to tell if a book copies text from another book or if a company uses another's logo, the relative newness of the mobile industry makes the water a bit murkier.

As a developer it is essential to understand how to recognize when one of your apps is being copied and what you can do (if anything) to rectify the situation.

Why would someone copy an app?

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. If a physics-based app becomes a top-seller, chances are that other developers will want to piggyback on that trend for their own gain.

Take HalfBrick studio's popular game, Fruit Ninja, where users try to slice as many pieces of fruit as possible within a given time limit. In March, Adv Webbing released Vegetable Samurai for iOS. In lieu of fruits, the user slashes vegetables, but the game has a similar look and feel as Fruit Ninja. However, it does not copy any images and no developer has control over "food slashing games." So what parts of an application can you copyright, and therefore legally protect?

Circular 61 of the U.S. Copyright Office, Copyright Registration for Computer Programs, states that "Copyright protection extends to all the copyrightable expression embodied in the computer program. Copyright protection is not available for ideas, program logic, algorithms, systems, methods, concepts, or layouts."

If another app directly copies your code, the other party can be held liable, providing the code is your original work and does not use open source code.

"You should consider registering your original work with the U.S. copyright office, because you cannot sue for copyright infringement unless your work is registered. Additionally, registration makes you eligible for statutory damages up to $150,000 and attorney's fees in such a suit," explained Renee M. Hykel, a corporate lawyer with experience in Intellectual Property law.

Rich Stim, an attorney specializing in small business, copyright, patents and trademark issues, notes that first you should choose what kind of app you'd like to copyright and whether it is more text-based or image-based. Most app developers tend to register apps as "literary works" because of the way source code is written. An app that is image-based may want to register itself as a "visual art" while a game may want to register as a "performing art."

Be wary of trademark violations

Tris

Tris and other Tetris-like games are no longer available for mobile.

Tetris is one of the most widely played games of all time. It has a simple concept: fitting together falling blocks made of four squares each. And currently, only Electronic Arts can sell a mobile version of Tetris. The Tetris Company has repeatedly sued companies with similar games. The App Store has had to remove Tris and recent Zynga acquisition, OMGPOP, had to pull its similar game Blockles. And in 2010, The Tetris Company made a sweep of the Android Market citing Digital Millennium Copyright Act violations for 35 different games.

Last year, developer Mario Karagiannis was forced to pull his game Tetrada from the Windows Phone 7 marketplace. Karagiannis insisted that his game did not violate the trademark but that he lacked the financial resources to fight the claim. This is an important point to keep in mind. Bigger companies like The Tetris Company have the means to protect their trademarks. Independent developers should register their work early to prevent their content from being copied or emulated by other firms.

The big copying the small?

While an indie developer may not have the financial resources to take on a larger company, it is important to make sure you aren't having your work being emulated by a larger firm.

Earlier this year, independent development company NimbleBit blasted social gaming giant Zynga for allegedly copying various aspects of its game Tiny Tower. Both Tiny Tower and Dream Heights let users build and manage skyscrapers.

"Even when you refuse to go work for Zynga, sometimes you end up doing work for Zynga anyway," tweeted NimbleBit co-founder David Marsh, with co-founder Ian Marsh responding "They did go the honest route and try to acquire us first."

NimbleBit did not respond to Fierce's request for comment on this article.

Zynga's CEO Mark Pincus responded to the accusations in an internal memo: "With regard to Dream Heights and the tower genre, it's important to note that this category has existed since 1994 with games like Sim Tower and was more recently popularized in China with Tower of Babel in 2009 which achieved 15 million DAUs. On iOS there has been Yoot Tower, Tower Up, Tower Town, Tower Blocks and Tiny Tower."

"We believe that our products are all differentiated from other ones on the market and given that these games are free and our consumers have the sort of freedom to choose, we really think ... that our consumers will see the value and the differences... that we've brought to our products," said Zynga SVP of Mobile, Travis Boatman, in an interview with FierceMobileContent.

cut the birds

Cut the Birds was pulled from Google Play, whether voluntarily or due to pending legal action from Rovio is uncertain. The game later returned with a revised logo that is less like Rovio's Angry Birds.

Contact the app store directly

Companies of all sizes will face others emulating their products. To be safe, developers should be on their guard and look into copyrighting images and/or text within their apps. In addition, it's important to be equally cautious that your own content isn't violating another developer's trademarks or using unauthorized content.

If you spot an app lifting code or graphics directly from one of your apps, contact the app store vendor directly to flag the app. Both Apple's App Store and Google Play have channels for developers to report copyright and trademark violations.