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Apple adds copyright infringement to reasons for rejecting apps

by Phil Hornshaw

The iTunes App Store is a big place, and in such a large and crowded digital space, there are bound to be a few unseemly characters.

One such character is intellectual property theft -- the plagiarism of another person’s creation to make money without their permission. This happens a lot in the video game industry; there are a ton of Angry Birds knock-offs (some better than Angry Birds itself), and Angry Birds wasn’t even the first to think up a lot of its mechanics. But there’s a fine line between building on someone else’s ideas and stealing their creation, and both take place in the App Store.

I wrote a story about one App Store developer for GameFront.com. EdisonGame, the developer in question, had at least four or five of its then-12 game catalogue that could be found elsewhere -- mostly on the Internet in the form of Flash games -- and after contacting the developers, it didn’t seem that he owned the games he was publishing. Many were blatant ripoffs that even included the original titles, and several of the developers had contacted Apple (AAPL).

One of the stolen games, The Blocks Cometh, was removed from the App Store and actually pushed the game’s original developer, a two-man indie team in London, Ontario, called Halfbot, to release its own superior version to the App Store. The Blocks Cometh by Halfbot is available today and is quite a bit of fun, and finally allows the people who created it to get the money they deserve for their creation.

Meanwhile, after all the attention that Halfbot and The Blocks Cometh theft got from media outlets like video game site Destructoid.com and Ars Technica, Apple has made some changes to its app review policy. According to Apple Insider, Apple has rolled out a host of new reasons for bouncing apps in its revised app review policy. Most of them are meant to protect Apple, but one puts underhanded developers on notice:

“If you attempt to cheat the system (for example, by trying to trick the review process, steal data from users, copy another developer's work, or manipulate the ratings) your apps will be removed from the store and you will be expelled from the developer program.”

Wheels slowly turning

But Apple has been painfully slow about addressing copyright issues of apps that have already made it into the store. Halfbot contacted Apple and waited better than a week for the knock-off game to be removed from the store, with little to no communication from Apple in the interim. Most of the games that identified as being potentially stolen in EdisonGame’s App Store catalogue have been pulled, but one, a wholesale recreation of the Flash game Ultimate Assassin 2, remains available in the App Store.

The change to the app review policy is a step in the right direction for Apple (they’ve also added provisions where an app can be pulled if you attempt to fake good ratings -- hopefully it will enforced enough to make a difference), but unless they cause thieving developers to think twice, they probably won’t have a big effect on copyright infringement in the App Store.

There are a couple reasons why this is the case: first, it’s extremely difficult for Apple to have an accurate ability to police copyright. The people reviewing apps before they enter the store might recognize a game as being extremely similar to one they’ve seen in the store or that’s popular, which they could stop, or they might be able to find a stolen original by running a quick search of the Internet. But other than that, it’s unlikely many stolen titles will be recognized as such, simply because, without being familiar with the stolen material, it can be really difficult to find an original (especially if the app doesn’t use the name of the thing it steals). Second, Apple really doesn’t gain much by playing copyright police -- there are actual police for that, after all -- and since the company makes money whether a game is original or not, it’s unlikely it will expend substantial resources to attempt to do something it can’t do all that well anyway.

Make some noise

So it’s up to developers and players to pay attention and notify Apple, the people whose property is being stolen, and anyone else who will listen. Developers with copyright claims should make as big a stink about it as possible with Apple if they want to get noticed. There’s a difficult-to-find page on Apple.com about copyright infringement claims, that includes contact information on who to get in touch with, and what Apple needs to get started dealing with a potential theft.

The best thing that can happen if a game is known to be stolen or full plagiarising another title is for the people who know better to leave reviews on iTunes saying as much, and avoiding actually purchasing those games. It seems the magic bullet for Halfbot was getting the Internet outraged over the incident -- getting other people’s attention is the best way to get the slow-moving wheels at Apple to start turning.

Meanwhile, Apple at least has some framework down to deal with copyright issues. But don’t expect a big push to clean up stolen apps -- it’s going to take individuals paying attention to make the App Store a more ethical place.