How do I protect my iPhone app idea
July 18, 2009 5:42 AM   Subscribe

How do I go about protecting my idea when I approach a developer about coding an iPhone app?

I'm sure finding a developer would be easy. My concern is that once I start diCussing my idea that they will claim it as their own and cut me out. What's the simplest way to protect myself?
posted by Thrillhouse to Computers & Internet (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Contractually. Get a very good (expensive) lawyer. Ideas are not patentable or property, and way less than a dime a dozen, it's the implementation that counts. Bring other stuff to the table: marketing expertise, business knowledge, hard work, funds, friendship, or at worst: scary second cousin Guido. But is some way be a full and very valuable partner, very few ideas are new and unique enough to warrant protection. Well unless it's as great as the fart app...
posted by sammyo at 5:52 AM on July 18, 2009

Don't worry about it. These days a lot of entrepreneurs talk about ideas freely without contract. I think the rationale is ...

a. People ambitious enough to steal your idea and do a good job with it would rather work on their own ideas.
b. If your idea is so vague that a conversation discloses the totality of its value, you don't have a very developed (valuable) idea.
c. Ideas aren't that important, what matters more is following through, caring about the product, and doing a good job.
d. Being ultra-protective is going to place a hefty tax on the number of people you can pitch as well as who you can solicit for advice.

I know you are picturing this theft nightmare, so let me try to balance it with another scenario, one which I think is far more likely. You approach Great Developer. Great Developer hears about lots of ideas from his many contacts; missing yours isn't a big deal for him. Doesn't want to be involved if NDA turns out to include vagueness like "any real time social media systems". The person who does sign the NDA is Mediocre Developer, who will sign anything because he needs the business. In addition to Mediocre Developer taking much longer than expected, you end up with a mediocre implementation which underwhelms consumers and your product is a failure.
posted by samsm at 6:49 AM on July 18, 2009 [9 favorites]

Talk to developers you trust. Be vague until you have some reason to trust them.

Ideas by themselves aren't very valuable. Also if your idea is simple enough that anyone else could implement it well after hearing a 30 second description, then you should expect that there will be five knockoff apps the moment you release yours. How many fart noise makers are there on the iPhone now?
posted by Nelson at 7:23 AM on July 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Ideas are cheap. Implementation is hard. These days when someone bothers to ask me to sign an NDA they're almost automatically pegged in my head as amateurs.

Don't worry about protecting the idea during the selecting-a-developer-to-hire process; as said above, if the idea is vague enough that its essence can be communicated during an interview, it's not worth stealing. Flesh out as much detail as you possibly can before you even start looking for a developer.

When you do hire someone, all you need to do is make sure your contract with them includes the magic words "work for hire" -- this means they are building the code for you, you own it, they don't.
posted by ook at 7:42 AM on July 18, 2009 [5 favorites]

(Also: unless the application is very very simple, consider hiring a good UI designer as well as a developer. The limited screen real estate on an iPhone makes it all the more important that the interaction design is solid. To users, the interface is the application: if the underlying code is a bit wonky but still works ok, nobody notices. If the interface is wonky, everybody notices.)
posted by ook at 7:45 AM on July 18, 2009

Speaking as someone who works with inventors and entrepreneurs, I would say there are plenty of ideas, but few people who can execute them. The best thing to do to protect your IP is to learn how to code.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:55 AM on July 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

Get a lawyer to draw up a non-disclosure and non-compete form (and to give related lawyerly suggestions that a lawyer would know about far better than I would).

Have the developer sign it before discussing anything other than "I'm looking for a developer to code an iPhone app".
posted by Flunkie at 8:07 AM on July 18, 2009

Being overexcited about an NDA will signal to the developer that you think that the idea is the all-important property, which will look naive on your part.

I've signed three NDAs in the last year. All were for pretty good ideas, but none that I (or anyone) would steal because they all required at least as much business development as software development: marketing, sales research, etc. In the case iPhone apps, that means working the app store to get and maintain a high search placement, deal with customers, and defend against competing apps trying to tank your ratings. When people here say "execution is more important than the idea", they don't just mean the software itself, they mean the business side of it as well. No idea is so excellent that all you need is to put it out there in the marketplace and watch money roll in.

Any developer contemplating stealing your idea would be contemplating having to do all that himself.
posted by fatbird at 8:24 AM on July 18, 2009 [4 favorites]

Get a lawyer to draw up a non-disclosure and non-compete form (and to give related lawyerly suggestions that a lawyer would know about far better than I would).

Be careful when instructing a lawyer about this. If the lawyer creates a document that binds the developer to you in slavery for all eternity (and since the lawyer is looking out for your interests, he might just do that), any decent developer will refuse to sign or will say "I'll only sign it if we strike this provision." You need to be ready to handle that situation, which means you need to go into it with an idea of what you need to have and what you'd like to have in the signed document.

For example, none of the NDAs I've signed have contained non-compete clauses, and I'd never sign one that did.
posted by fatbird at 8:30 AM on July 18, 2009

You are going to have to market it aren't you?

If you're app is that great, you should be more worried about how you will compete with the knock off clones that will be hot on your heels once the idea is out.

Then, your only advantage, if this really is a unique idea, is being first to market. The barrier to entry for a typical iPhone app is not very high.
posted by w.fugawe at 8:41 AM on July 18, 2009

Look at Friend DA - it's a less annoying version of the NDA.
posted by lowlife at 8:53 AM on July 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Thanks everyone. I have a lot to consider. Just curious- how comicated is iPhone coding? I'm no slouch and capable of learning unless it's incredibly intense and require a CS degree.
posted by Thrillhouse at 9:30 AM on July 18, 2009

The best thing to do to protect your IP is to learn how to code.

A little off topic, but I have to disagree with this - telling a non-developer to learn to code so they can write it themselves just isn't realistic. You can learn some programming fairly quickly, but to learn to program well - that takes years, and more time still to get competent on new platforms like iPhone OS. Trying to roll your own means you're likely going to end up with something bad (no insult intended; everybody's bad at first). But if you end up releasing something that sucks, then (a) nobody's going to want it, and (b) your great idea is out there, and can be redone by somebody who knows what they're doing. By all means, if you want to, learn to code and have fun with it. But in the meantime I'd hire somebody who knows what they're doing.

To address the actual question: you're probably worrying too much. I'm sure some developers steal ideas, but freelance developers generally don't want to develop a reputation as unethical or untrustworthy. Unless your idea is really just game-changingly fantastic, it's just not worth it. Give the developer a broad outline of what you want, and then do the specifics in a contract.
posted by captainawesome at 9:34 AM on July 18, 2009

Like others have said, the "idea" is pretty pointless to get an NDA for. Ideas area dime a dozen, people that can take your idea and turn it into a product are also a dime a dozen.

The combination of a good product, good business plan, etc... are where you will earn your money. I would rather have the people dealing with the business side of the idea sign into an NDA then worry about the actual product. If the product is good enough, someone will steal it anyway at some point down the line and change it just enough to not be like your product.

No need to scare off a good source that can make the product due to unreasonable demands for NDA, no compete, etc..
posted by Gravitus at 9:48 AM on July 18, 2009

Just curious- how comicated is iPhone coding? I'm no slouch and capable of learning unless it's incredibly intense and require a CS degree.

Unless your app is trivial (in which case it's probably not going to make any money), you can't really learn enough to effectively execute it. iPhone apps are generally written in Objective C, a language mostly confined to the OS X ecosphere. You can work through the tutorials and code up some toy apps, but it won't work well on the iPhone, and the things you need to know to make it work well are the stuff that experience teaches you. You might stand a chance if you were an experienced coder in another field, but if you're not, I'd say you should save yourself the headaches and get a skilled developer.
posted by fatbird at 10:41 AM on July 18, 2009

Nthing that if you try to protect your idea so hard that it makes it at all inconvenient to work with you, developers will just move on. The demand for iPhone developers far outstrips the supply.
posted by ignignokt at 11:20 AM on July 18, 2009

iPhone applications are written in objective-c, which is a crazy-ass crazy language. It's not impossible to get going, but it's probably help if you already knew how to program.
posted by chunking express at 9:43 AM on July 20, 2009

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