Tim Lince

A new trend of sellers on online marketplaces offering customisable code for programmers to easily reskin popular phone apps is on the rise, and should be on the radars of all trademark counsel who enforce marks that are represented on app stores. The good news is that, as one industry expert notes, taking down one infringing customisable code could potentially stop hundreds of infringing apps from entering the app store environment.

Recent news reports looked at an unofficial sequel to the popular Minecraft: Pocket Edition that was topping the charts on Apple’s iOS Store - a feat that would require thousands of downloads. The game, entitled Minecraft: Pocket Edition 2, was priced at $10.99 (the same price as the legitimate original) and screenshots suggested it was a game with graphics more advanced than the original Minecraft game. A host of five-star reviews on the game’s app store page also added to its legitimacy. However, if a user downloaded the game, it turned out to be a simple 2D game and did not resemble the screenshots. Unsurprisingly, shortly after the news articles and subsequent user backlash, Apple removed the game from the store following an IP infringement notice from Minecraft developer Mojang. The success of this fake app, in terms of the number of downloads, was of particular concern following the discovery of malicious code being added to thousands of so-called ‘clone apps’ on app stores, which take advantage of the popularity of a successful app by creating a copycat version that appears to be affiliated with the original. However, even absent the presence of malware, the potential reputational hit from duped customers is clear.

Further investigation suggests that this particular fake app was a reskin of a source code available to buy on digital marketplace CodeCanyon (the code in question was taken down shortly after the creator was contacted by World Trademark Review). The code, entitled ‘Fist Of Zombies’, was created by a company called Hybera and could be licensed for between $15 and $75. Hybera has a number of source codes available to license, including code for the popular app Fruit Ninja (also taken down shortly after being contacted, but available to view here), promising “easy to replace” graphics. CodeCanyon also hosts customisable code that allows users to easily clone popular apps including Angry Birds, Badland, Tetris and Swing Copters. Another coding marketplace, ChupaMobile, offers customisable code to clone apps including Pac-Man, Super Mario and Flappy Bird.

The latter, available to licence for between $199 and $999, claims it is “one reskin [that has] already featured 247 times on the App Store”. Its creator claims the code has great money-making potential: “We have taken a very close look and reverse engineered games like Clash of Clans, Candy Crush Saga and Jetpack Joyride. We have taken that knowledge and put it into ‘Flappy Blueprint’. That is why it is the ultimate app and it has a ‘Powerful Monetization System’.” A sales pitch on a source code for viral hit 2048 states: “Now the 2048 puzzle game for iOS is gaining popularity and you don’t want to be late to earn some $$$. So don’t wait for another opportunity and come ride the wave with us.”

It is worth noting that CodeCanyon has a dedicated page to report IP infringement, while ChupaMobile has a specific email address for copyright claims. However, Ryan Morrison, who runs a firm that specialises in representing independent games companies, argues that such coding marketplaces make  potentially IP-infringing clone apps easier to create, adding: “Online marketplaces that sell this type of code, which allows very easy reskins of popular apps, are fuelling the pirate community on app stores. For IP counsel that are policing marks on app stores, coding marketplaces should definitely be added to their enforcement rotation. One problem is that many attorneys don't know websites like these exist or realise that they are a potential problem. Coding websites for most law firms start and end with GitHub, but there are many other websites where people can buy or license source codes. And the example of the fake Minecraft: Pocket Edition 2 is exactly why you should be watching - it turned into a PR nightmare for Mojang, especially because Minecraft has an extremely young fanbase who don't necessarily know how to check if an app is legitimate, so it made it ripe for an IP-infringing clone app.”

As demonstrated by the aforementioned Flappy Bird code reportedly being used to create nearly 250 clone apps, Morrison concludes that policing coding marketplaces can have a clear payback: "This kind of infringement is rampant on the internet, it's something that every IP attorney who deals with video games or software should be policing very aggressively. Shutting down one infringing code means you are potentially stopping hundreds of final products you'd have to fight eventually. Ultimately, cutting an issue off at the head is a very proactive, potentially cost-saving way of enforcement."

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