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Apple Asks Developers About App Legal Issues

Developers hope the queries introduced in iTunesConnect portend preparations to defend them again Lodsys' patent claims and similar legal threats.

In the wake of patent holding company Lodsys' decision to sue several iOS, Mac OS X, and Android developers for patent infringement, Apple has begun asking its developers whether their apps face any legal problems.

After prompting developers to agree to the newly updated iOS developer agreement, one that encompasses the legal issues related to the upcoming launch of the company's iCloud service, Apple is presenting developers who access iTunesConnect, its app management service, with a web submission form titled iCloud Legal Information. The question posted is, "Do you have any apps that may have a legal issue?"

An Apple developer who asked not to be named--Apple prefers to control information disclosure and its App Store Review Guidelines imply that criticizing the company in the press may hinder app approval--provided InformationWeek with a screenshot of the survey.

Another Apple developer, James Wilson, also noticed Apple's interest in the legal status of apps, this time on the same page a longstanding export compliance form. "Is this in response to the Lodsys In-App Purchasing patent trolling?" mused Wilson in a blog post. "I think so. It seems a bit early to be asking about this in regard to iCloud."

While it's likely Apple's questions about the legal status of apps have been motivated by the situation with Lodsys, there are other patent litigants making claims against Apple developers--MacroSolve, for example--and other legal issues that Apple has to deal with. So this may be merely a new business process designed to keep Apple's lawyers informed about legal issues faced by developers.

Coincidentally, Lodsys' patents are being challenged by a Michigan company, ForeSee Results, embroiled in prior litigation with Lodsys. ForeSee Results on Tuesday filed for a declaratory judgment to invalidate Lodsys's patents.

Lodsys did not respond to a request for comment; Apple also did not respond to a request for comment.

The patent infringement lawsuits have created an undercurrent of fear in the developer community and Apple's developers have made it clear that they want Apple to protect them, even though their agreement with Apple makes it clear that Apple has no obligation to do so.

Some developers have been heartened by Apple's assertion that because it has licensed Lodsys's patents, its developers are licensed too. But Lodsys' decision to go ahead and file patent infringement lawsuits against seven developers last week suggests that Apple and other platform owners like Google need to do more than make public statements.

Florian Mueller, an intellectual property activist who has blogged extensively about these issues, argues that the mobile ecosystem and all platforms face a serious threat from "patent trolls," a term generally applied to patent holding companies that exist solely to collect patent royalties and that tend to sue companies too poorly funded to defend themselves. The reason the threat is so serious, Mueller suggests, is that patent ligation costs can easily exceed $1 million, something most mobile developers can't afford.

"Platform makers should lend much more support to app developers to ensure that trolls can't just 'feed' too easily on little app developers," Mueller said in an email. "Otherwise the risk of being sued ... will discourage people and companies from developing such apps. Also, if programmers have to pay license fees only because they can't afford to defend themselves, they perceive this as very unjust--which in my view it really is--and it's also a major turn-off."

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