Tomorrow the world will be waiting to see Apple unveil its latest products--most likely the iPhone 5. Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL), meanwhile, is waiting for the ongoing copyright squabbles within the iOS developer community to escalate. About two weeks ago Brad Larson, a developer with Sunset Software in Wisconsin, noticed a new contact form which has been quietly set up on Apple.com that offers app creators an opportunity to complain publicly if they feel their work has been ripped off by someone else. After mentioning the form on Twitter, Larson's discovery was investigated further by The Next Web, Venture Beat and others, revealing that the iTunes Content Dispute tool is Apple's way of being more proactive in the copyright and legal issues surrounding mobile apps.
"We will email both parties so that you can work directly with each other to resolve the dispute," the form says. "Any further contact with the App Store Legal team should be made via email and should include the reference number in the subject line."
Apple, in other words, is tired of playing referee. Perhaps worn out from fighting its own successful copyright battle against Samsung recently, the subtext on the form is clear: developers should be prepared to deal with this on their own. Unfortunately, it's going to become ever more difficult for Apple to stay on the sidelines. iTunes has grown to such a size that the value of putting a successful app there is roughly equivalent to staking a claim in the Wild West. If and when the iPhone 5 is released--catch all our coverage of the Apple event on Sept. 12 here--the opportunity for creating apps on the iOS platform will be more attractive than ever before. While the iTunes Content Dispute tool is refreshingly clear, it also means developers may be more likely to hold Apple accountable if the person or firm accused of stealing their work doesn't respond properly to their email. In an age of social media, complaints about any difficulties in following Apple's recommended process could be damning.
Of course, even a company with the resources of Apple can't be expected to stick-handle each and every app dispute. It has already cracked down on cloned versions of popular games. And in some cases the extent of purported copyright infringement could vary widely--it could simply be an icon that looks a little too similar to something else, or an app that copies entire chunks of another developer's code base.
Ultimately, the best way to mitigate app disputes is for developers to arm themselves by conducting copyright due diligence long before their work ever reaches iTunes. Apple has included more than enough information about what constitutes infringement and what the legal process involves, as do many other sources readily available online. In the face of stiff competition and the rush to get into market, however, many consumer developers are probably more focused on their discoverability strategy than figuring out what to do if they become successful enough to be ripped off by a copycat.
Developers who wait until they reach the point where they need to use the iTunes Content Dispute form, however, will find themselves forced to get up to speed on how this works quickly, while others will be able to continue spending more of their time on creating new apps. The launch of a new iPhone should be a moment to unleash innovation, not litigation.--Shane