There was an application for PalmPilots that I liked back when PalmPilots were a thing. I want to recreate it (or at least what I remember of it) for modern mobile devices. The problem is, after scouring the internet for any information on the application or the original author, I am unable to find anything. I can't even find any binaries for the app. Since I have absolutely nothing but memories to work with, I'll have to write this from scratch, but my intention is to make it as similar as possible to the original.

Since I have no idea who the original author was or what the original license was (I do know that it was at least freeware), I wonder to what extent I can do this. I don't plan on charging for my rewrite and I would like to license it under the GPL or similar. I know this is probably a gray issue, but is it closer to light gray or dark gray?

EDIT: I should also add that I know for a fact that any text or graphics (ie. anything except code/functionality/UI layout/general concept) would have been licensed to the author in such a way that, without question, I would also be able to use them.

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    Without giving a full answer: in terms of code, this is reasonably safe, inasmuch as clean room design is safe (which is a debatable topic). However, you could still possibly run afoul of trademark law (if your final product is not distinguishable from the original such that a consumer might be confused about its authorship), copyright law (if your visual assets or user-facing text infringe on the original art or text), or patent law (if the original application used patented techniques that are still currently under patent).
    – apsillers
    Jun 6 '13 at 14:47
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    Maybe this bit on orphaned works will help.
    – Mike
    Jun 6 '13 at 14:51
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    It's hard to imagine how writing an app from scratch using your own memories of how the original app works is going to run afoul of any laws. Jun 6 '13 at 14:56
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    @RobertHarvey: it's hard to imagine, but that's exactly what patent law and trademark law do (not copyright law, 'though). Jun 6 '13 at 15:33
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    Consider also Lotus v. Borland, in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that a program's "method of operation" is not eligible for copyright, so creating a similarly-behaved program without borrowing assets or code from the original is not recognized by the U.S. courts as copyright infringement, in general.
    – apsillers
    Jun 6 '13 at 15:46

The basis for copyright law is that, if you create something by means of a process that is not entirely mechanical (i.e. it required you to think), then the copyright belongs to you (or your employer, if the work was created as part of your employment/job).

With that basis, there are no obstacles in copyright law to re-create a program based on your memory of it.

If you make it similar enough, you could run into issues with trademarks and such, but that can usually be mitigated without compromising functionality.

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