Anyone involved in software development today must have a keen understanding of the ins and outs of intellectual property rights, including copyright laws and patent development. But the area is so vast that it can be difficult to narrow down the most important points to start with.
Here we’ll outline five key areas that developers and others in the software industry should have a clear understanding of. This list may be especially useful for independent entrepreneurs who are focused on developing their own products or who are newcomers to the tech industry in general.
Trademarks protect your name, domain, images, and everything related to product design. You must register your trademark to ensure full and complete legal protection of your brand.
Quite simply, anyone who develops a piece of software should put in place the protection mechanisms that will solidly protect your brand name even before they go into the development process and especially before they partner with anyone else.
It’s important that software developers have a contemporary understanding of how trademarks work— not only to protect themselves but also to be aware of the rights and responsibilities of others that you may end up working with.
2. Open Source Agreements
One of the areas that can get particularly sticky when it comes to intellectual property is in the realm of purposefully shareable intellectual property like open source code. The main thing to know is that this type of software is actually copyrighted and developers are required to use it in accordance with specific licensing.
If a developer releases the finished work as open-source, there are different types of open source licenses, which the developer should be familiar with ahead of time. Depending on the license, there will be different permissions granted to the users of the software. However, developers that are creating software programs with the intention of having it end up as a part of an open source platform don’t need to abide by licensing rules.
3. Author Versus Owner
Ownership determination can be complex and especially in the case of open source software. However, in terms of employee-employer relationships, so long as someone is an employee, anything that they develop is not their own – the employer will always have the copyright, and this is the case no matter what role the developer plays in the development process.
If the developer is an independent contractor, they may be considered the owner unless there is a legally binding contract outlining other terms.
4. Trade Secrets
It may seem unethical to some who are focused on knowledge-sharing for the benefit of innovation to keep things a secret but sometimes it’s necessary since other forms of copyright will be both public and have certain limitations.
If a developer finds themselves with a highly original and valuable idea, it may be that they want to keep it a secret in order to maintain full control over the source code without risk of anyone copying it. A protection program will include confidentiality agreements, password protection and the like.
Trade secrets can be kept in perpetuity, but they do require that extensive steps be taken to ensure privacy – which of course gets more complicated depending on the size of a team.
A patent typically is in place for 20 years. Developers can get patents on software, but only if the invention is extremely original – in the software space this will pertain to the software itself (e.g., applications) and/or the algorithm incorporated in the design. Patents also require that you make the details of your invention public.
All developers need to have a clear understanding of their rights in relation to any partnership employment scenario before they actually enter into a work agreement or even start developing their own unique product line.
Any agreement between two parties should be explicitly written and contract-based and should outline the terms and rights well into the future if not in perpetuity.