Thursday, March 24, 2011

What Version Do You Deposit for Software App Copyright?

Dear Rich: We have a popular app that's gone through several versions and is available for Apple and Android platforms. We've never copyrighted the app and now we're trying to do it. We started with the electronic registration but we're confused. Do we register the current version of the program or the first version. The Dear Rich staff is feeling kind of strange these days and we're not sure whether it's world events, Liz Taylor's departure, the behavior of the tides and moon, Charlie Sheen's trademark activity, or all of the above. In any case your question triggered memories from back in the 80s when we worked for a software company that developed networking software. And one day the company's developer hooked up the software in our office and somebody in another office sent us our first message from their computer and it was just like one of those "Come here Mr. Watson" moments.
Right, you had a question. If you're concerned about infringement, you should register both the first version and the most recent version, and you should probably do the same for all platforms. Yes, it's true that you get copyright automatically once you create a work. But in reality, the copyright is not so automatic when you want to sue someone. That's because you have to file a registration before filing your suit. When completing the application, the Copyright Office rules require that you (1) list the first date of publication, (2) that you acknowledge any preexisting material that you incorporate in your version, and (3) that you deposit the best edition of the first publication. Those three criteria can cause confusion. That's because software programs (like video games and websites) go through a series of substantial changes after they're first offered to the public.
Date of first publication; preexisting material. The Copyright Office wants you to provide the date of first publication for your software program. But if you're offering a series of version, each constitutes a separate "first" publication. For example, there's a first publication for your iPod version, your iPad version, your iPod 2.0 version, your Android 3.0 version, etc. And whenever you register your work you can claim only what is new over the previous version. As a result, you must file a series of registrations as described here.
Depositing the best edition. Consider the software developer who no longer had the first published version of his source code from 1990. In order to deposit the first published version, he reconstructed it by removing all of the code he'd added since the program was first created. Not good enough said a court who claimed that reconstructions of code would not suffice. Therefore, we hope you have maintained copies of the source code for each version and you can furnish it according to these requirements. P.S. For more exciting legal info on apps, check out our O'Reilly Mini eGuide.