Copyright in apps: who owns what?


4 minute read
Tom Melamed

Tom Melamed

Non-executive Director

Digital Insights

Great mobile apps are built on great code and great content. But the big question is – who owns what?

Many brands with a mobile app don’t know which parts of the app they actually own – there’s been confusion expressed by heritage organisations who aren’t quite sure who the content belongs to once the development contract’s been signed.

It’s a question that affects app owners in all industries – which is why we’ve set out a framework to make understanding copyright in apps that bit easier.

It’s not ‘one size fits all’

Copyright in app design isn’t something with a standardised approach: every contract from every development agency is likely to be different. You’ll find details of ownership of both code and content – the ‘intellectual property’ – in the small print: we can’t stress enough how important it is to check the small print before you sign on the dotted line.

Intellectual property rights may not be something you’ve considered when having initial conversations with a development agency, but it’s definitely a subject that’s worth bringing up from the off. If you’re looking to start negotiations for the creation of a mobile app, this framework is a great place to start.

Four ‘levels’ of content

Generally speaking, apps comprise four levels of content, which give you four areas where you can negotiate ownership with your developer.

  • Content supplied by the client. This is generally exclusively owned by the client. This could be content that appears on a client’s website that they also wish to include in their mobile app, or content that the client has written specifically for the new app. It will generally include things such as images, film, copy and sounds.
  • Content created by the agency for the app. This is an area where negotiation should be possible – while some agencies may claim the IP rights to content they have created for your app, you can also argue that it’s part of the service you’ve paid for. Such content could include images created by the development agency, such as the app icon  that appears on an end-user’s home screen.
  • Code created by the agency for the app, which can also be used in other apps. The amount of custom code included in an app can make up a tiny part of an app, or 95% of it. This varies on a project-by-project basis. The level of custom code will affect negotiations at the developer’s end, and is certainly negotiable between the agency and the client. It may be that the developer has created a specific app template that they use for a number of clients – if your project uses this template, the copyright will be owned by the developer.
  • Open source code. This is code freely available to the developer community, owned by neither client nor agency. Apple, for one, have released plenty of open source code that is available to developers for their own app development projects: each piece of open source code will have its own copyright restrictions, which will govern its use in your app.



Here at Calvium, copyright ownership varies from project to project – set out in the terms and conditions of every app project that we take on.

The importance of relationships

It’s not just about this framework, though: a strong client-agency relationship is key if you’re looking to negotiate potential copyright issues. Look for an agency with a co-creative approach: a partner relationship rather than the traditional agency/client deal.

Starting negotiations for app development is simple: if you don’t like the terms and conditions that have been set out, challenge them!

Want to know how to get the most from your app agency? Find out more here

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