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I'm making a app which is based heavily on another application that serves a similar purpose. I'm not actually planning on selling it, but I'm wondering whether it would even be legal for me to sell it.

I don't borrow graphics from the other application, but I have a very similar color scheme, virtually the same features (I added a few, but not really significant), and a very similar interface layout. Obviously, I'm not borrowing any code (It's written in Objective-C and mines written in Java).

Again, I'm not actually planning on selling it, I was just wondering in the hypothetical. I'm not sure whether it's just the code that's copyrighted or the actually design itself.

  • Consider Zynga copying Triple Town with Yeti Town and the associated ruling - of course, the best thing to do is talk to a lawyer versed in IP law. – user40980 Jun 9 '13 at 22:52
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    My brother is an IP lawyer. Whenever I ask him a question like this, he tells me that his answer will depend on who is paying him. Prostitutes, all. – Hovercraft Full Of Eels Jun 9 '13 at 23:38
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    @HovercraftFullOfEels: True, I always kind feel that way as well. Obviously, the fact that in the US there's a "case law" approach could feel reassuring in this regard; but as long as a case hasn't reached state or federal... you can't know for sure! And it does feel like this could be a lottery if things go down "let's decide this in court" way. – haylem Jun 10 '13 at 0:34
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As usual: IANAL, but I'd say that...

Yes: you can copy UI elements and color-schemes

Elements of UI Design are NOT Generally Viewed as IP

While You can patent functionalities and behaviors, you cannot patent or copyright or trademark a design, except if it's the design of a brand or logo for a registered trademark. Similarly, you can't copyright a color charter: it's too generic.

However, you can patent GUI-related functionalities, unfortunately, because the patent system is clueless (in the US and some other countries). e.g., double-clicking, swiping, and things like that...

In the case of a complete clone, as far as I know (which isn't much, let's make that clear again), this could be ground for legal issues. Meaning if you'd have copied the screen's content, mode of navigation AND color schemes, some people would find it legitimate to sue you. Doesn't mean they would succeed, but that could a risk. They'd be unlikely to succeed as they can't own the IP for the design, and you'd have re-implemented it entirely.

For additional confirmation and what it's worth:

Counter Point

However, note that there's literature covering the other hangle as well, such as the "Appendix L - What Can You Borrow" to "Task-Centered User Interface Design":

  • Things you can probably not copy -- again, watch the news and check with your attorney.
    • Sequences or arrangements of menu items, commands, screens, etc., if you're only copying the sequence order because it will make it easier for users of someone else's existing program to use your new program.
    • Icons, commands, menu items, or other words that are not an obvious choice to describe their function, even if they would make your program more usable for users of the original program. An example might be a database print command labelled "DataDump," or a mouse-options icon showing a cute little mouse with a checklist.
  • Things you can certainly not copy (unless you get permission).
    • Things you've written earlier for a different company.
    • An entire interface from another company's program, even if you implement it with all new code.
    • An entire detailed screen from another company's program. [...]
    • Trademarks from other companies. If you need to use someone else's trademark, such as "Unix" in documentation, be sure you credit the owner: "Unix is a trademark of Unix Systems Laboratories, Inc."
    • Patented features. Unfortunately, there's no easy way to discover what's patented.
    • Exact bitmaps of icons, words, or fonts.
    • Graphic details that define an interface's aesthetic look.

Note that:

  • this leaves room for interpretation,
  • this isn't legal advice either.

Bottom Line? Get a Lawyer... or Don't Copy!!!

  • Incidentally, Lotus vs. Borland found that copying a menu structure for compatibility was allowed. – Alan Shutko May 5 '15 at 3:19
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    There is a corner case. If your intention was to confuse a buyer so he would mistake your product for the original product (because of color scheme, font, similar logos etc. ) then you could be sued. – James Anderson May 5 '15 at 3:40
  • @JamesAnderson: you probably missed this paragraph in my answer, which already mentions this corner case: In the case of a complete clone, as far as I know (which isn't much, let's make that clear again), this could be ground for legal issues. Meaning if you'd have copied the screen's content, mode of navigation AND color schemes, some people would find it legitimate to sue you. Doesn't mean they would succeed, but that could a risk. They'd be unlikely to succeed as they can't own the IP for the design, and you'd have re-implemented it entirely. – haylem May 5 '15 at 15:26
  • @JamesAnderson: It's also in the quote I give a bit further down in the answer, amongst "things you can certainly NOT copy: An entire interface from another company's program, even if you implement it with all new code. and Graphic details that define an interface's aesthetic look. But, as I mention in my answer, whether this would be admissible in court is a different thing, and is difficult to define. – haylem May 5 '15 at 15:28
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Well twitter has a patent on the pull to refresh functionality so in theory you could get sued if you chose to copy that feature. That is just one example. There are tons of software patents out there, so no. You can't always copy a feature.

  • @JamesAnderson seems like you commented on the wrong answer. – Esben Skov Pedersen May 6 '15 at 8:12

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