Business ideas that require use of social media require extra legal attention, IP law expert warns
The digital revolution is redefining businesses. Companies that were once confined to marketing to a local audience now have the potential to operate international business from little more than a mobile set up.
However, the simplicity involved in starting up online can be a trap for the unwary says Shireen Smith, intellectual property (IP) law specialist at London-based law firm, Azrights.
One area that Smith believes needs more legal attention is business concepts that require setting up a social media platform.
Social media platforms are experiencing exponential growth, with 72 percent of UK internet users now having a social media profile in 2015 according to Ofcom research. And success can turn a penniless business into one valued at almost £300m in a year, like that of US-based app YikYak.
Smith said: “Firms may want to interface with other sites in order to access media. This involves knowing about your legal position when using an Application Programming Interface (API). Put simply, an API is a language a programmer can use to talk to a system.
“The law in this area is constantly evolving and with the web design and development industry being unregulated, it is crucial to seek legal advice.”
Oracle and Google have had an ongoing legal dispute concerning APIs since 2012.
Smith said: “Google made use of Oracle’s API and the question concerned whether the API was protected by copyright. If so, then Google was not free to make use of it without Oracle’s permission.
“The courts ruled that APIs are in fact protected by copyright in the US. According to the US-based digital rights group, Electronic Frontier Foundation, this gives tech firms ‘unprecedented and dangerous power’ over developers by making it substantially more difficult for upstarts to create new software.
“Although it would be interesting to have a ruling from the EU on the same facts, given that most APIs that you might want to use are US-based, the US ruling is one that you would need to heed if you wanted to use an API.
“The upshot is that you may need permission from the owner of a platform if you want to create another system which is compatible with it, for example Facebook. The legal protection of computer software is a complex and fast-paced area of law.”
With regards to other social media platforms, ‘tropicalisation’ is an occurrence that has been significant in China and Brazil. The term refers to the practice of investing in start-ups which take an established business model and adapt it to an emerging market – a feat that is easily achievable in today’s digital economy.
Smith said: “Examples include Peixe Urbano, a Brazilian clone of ‘daily-deal’ site Groupon, Weibo the Chinese Twitter-like microblogging platform, RenRen the Chinese version of Facebook, Baidu the Chinese take on Google and Alibaba a Chinese copy of eBay.
“From an IP perspective there are few legal barriers to this tactic. The law does not protect bare business models. Elements of a business model might be protected. A patent can sometimes protect the technology, copyright can protect the expression of a concept, designs can protect the aesthetic aspects and trademarks protect business and product names.”
Securing a range of intellectual property rights in different elements can combine to provide the most powerful protection as each IP right protects you in subtly different ways and situations, said Smith.
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