The Roanoke Times recently published the story of Brian Raub, a developer of travel-related websites and the creator of Lakelubbers.com, a site dedicate to reviewing vacation-destination lakes across the world.
Raub had discovered that a company based in India had produced some 11 apps, each selling for 99 cents in the Apple App Store, that were scraping content from his site and republishing it wholesale. All without permission, attribution or any kind of revenue share.
When Raub approached Apple with the problem, they asked Raub to work it out with the company involved directly. However, the company, often responding in broken English, denied the copying even though it was clear and refused to remove the apps or his work.
Apple eventually removed the 11 apps at issue only to have the company upload 20 more, each representing a different state. Apple, so far has not removed those apps though it is unclear if Raub has filed a DMCA takedown notice.
The story caused a bit of a blowback in the mainstream tech press, especially on Apple sites, with journalists talking about Apple’s copyright infringement problem and the repackaging of content into paid apps.
However, this problem isn’t anything new. Countless apps make use of website content and there’s a very good chance that, if you have a popular website, your content may already be featured in an app.
Easy Apps, Easy Content
Creating an app has never been easier. In addition to the barriers of entry being lower than ever, there are services such as Apps Geyser and iBuildApp that will enable you to create an app from your site either for a small fee or a revenue share.
However, there is little, if any, checking being done to see if the content the apps are pulling is owned by the app creator. As a result, many apps pull content from websites without their permission.
Often times this is fairly innocuous. If you search for “TechCrunch” in the Apple App Store, you’ll first find the official app but then you’ll see several “News” apps that basically pull the RSS feed of TechCrunch along with similar sites to make a news feed, much like a pre-loaded RSS reader.
These apps aren’t republishing content, there’s full attribution and the sites that use truncated RSS feeds likely see a decent amount of mobile traffic from it. While it would be nice if these apps obtained permission, they are at least in a symbiotic relationship with the sites they pull from.
But then there are apps like the one Raub found. Since LakeLubbers does not offer an RSS feed, the content was either copied or automatically scraped from Raub’s site directly and then pasted into the apps directly without attribution.
It is unclear how many apps like this there are. These apps aren’t trivial to search for because they, usually, won’t list the source of their content, instead attempting to make it appear like they created it, and there’s no easy way to search for text, images or video inside apps being sold.
The only way to find the content, as Raub found, is to look for suspicious apps and download them, often at cost, to find out where the content came from.
But Raub is almost certainly not the only one impacted and the Apple App Store is not the only app store involved. Plagiarism and copyright infringement, including of Web-based content is a much broader issue.
The Broader Problem
We’ve all heard tales of copyright infringing apps in app stores.
In May of this year, Microsoft was called out for a “cesspool” of infringing apps that allowed users to illegally stream movies and TV shows. Two months prior, Lilith Games sued uCool for copyright infringement in its mobile game “Heroes Charge”, which was featured both in the Apple App Store and the Google Play store.
In short, the Raub’s case is just the latest in a long line of copyright problems in app stores that goes back years, as shown by the 2010 battle over AppVault, which was pulled from the Apple App Store after allegations it was a rip off of a similar app.
The issue is that, as the barriers to producing mobile apps have lowered and the amount of revenue flowing into them has increased, the checks and balances against copyright infringement have not increased either.
Though, in 2011, Apple added copyright infringement to the reasons it gives when rejecting apps, its clear from Raub’s case that the App Store review process isn’t able to completely weed out copyright infringing apps.
And the truth is there probably isn’t a way. Much as with online courses, it’s unfeasible to ensure that all of the text, images, video, audio and code in an app is original or authorized, especially when more than 1,000 apps are submitted every day.
Still, this doesn’t mean that Apple, Google and Microsoft should give up on stopping copyright infringing apps. Instead, they need to work on improving their policies to discourage infringement and encourage innovation.
Fixing (or at Least Addressing) the Problem
As with online courses, tracking copyright infringement in apps is going to be a challenge, however, the stores can do a great deal to discourage the submission of copyright infringing apps including:
- Ban Copyright Infringers: This one sounds simple, but the company in Raud’s case submitted 11 infringing apps that were removed and then were allowed to submit 20 more. Even if Raud never filed a DMCA, clearly this company was a repeat infringer and needed to have their access to submitting apps cut.
- Look for Warning Signs: According to Apple, copyright infringement is not a common reason for apps to be rejected. However, app stores have numbers and statistics on the apps that are and can likely find warning signs that an app needs extra review for possible infringement.
- No Ill Gotten Gains: When an app is confirmed to be copyright infringing, through whatever process the store has, there needs to be an assurance that the infringer will not be able to keep their ill-gotten gains. This can be difficult since app stores pay developers on a regular basis, but finding ways to ensure infringers can’t profit from their misdeeds is the biggest step one can take to limiting the number who submit infringing apps.
To be clear, these steps won’t eliminate copyright infringement in app stores. However, as I stated in the previous article about online courses, if you want a community that respects copyright and creates original work, you need to strongly discourage infringement as well as encourage novelty.
In short, if you don’t clamp down on copyright infringement, you’re going to find yourself in a community that’s filled with infringers, making it difficult for the original creators to find an audience.
The frightening part is that this problem is only going to grow. As ad blockers are introduced to mobile browsers and the barriers to releasing an app keep dropping, more and more content creators are going to turn to apps to supplement their income. With them will come a small but growing number of plagiarists an infringers.
However, without action, the numbers of infringers will continue to grow unchecked and given how prolific copyright infringers can be (it’s a lot faster to produce apps when you don’t have to create original content) they can easily drown out legitimate publishers.
Raul’s story is a warning for both creators and the companies that run app stores: Apps are not just the future of content, but the future of copyright infringement. Creators need to be ready to protect their content and app store owners need to be prepared to keep the infringers at bay.
The next challenge has just begun and it will be interesting to see how all sides respond.