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Ambiguity In The App Store: Understanding India’s Emerging IT Sector In Light Of IP – CIS India


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CIS LogoMobile applications hold immense potential for India but are not fully understood by even their own developers in the context of India’s intellectual property (IP) regime. This is the first in a series of blog posts introducing the Centre for Internet and Society’s new access to knowledge research initiative that seeks to understand how stakeholders encounter India’s IP law and what this means for the mobile app ecosystem, and in turn, the Indian mobile user. This research also aims to address problematic policy areas for innovation and protection for developers, as well as to comment on India’s regime with respect to the emerging mobile app sector.

India is at a pivotal point within its IT industry as mobile technologies take off like never before. Smartphone usage appears to be replacing PC use altogether for many, and today’s generation is even said to belong to India’s “mobile only generation” as 41% of Indians access the internet through mobile phones. The potential for mobile technologies for India can be better envisioned as various reports compare prior growth rates with astonishing projections for the next few years, and in doing so, demonstrate India’s exponential growth in terms of smart phone and internet penetration.

In the last 3-4 years, the number of users who access the internet through a 3G connection has long surpassed the number of fixed line broadband connections accumulatively over the last 17 years.  The funny part is that 3G has yet to be widely adopted, with only 4% of over 900 million mobile subscriptions using 3G. This number is expected to grow from 36 million to 266 million by 2016—within a mere 3 years, and smartphones, from 67 million this year to 382 million by 2016. At that point, India will likely be within the world’s top 5 countries for smartphones, potentially representing almost 10% of the entire world’s supply—practically five times that of what it was only 5 years prior in 2011. As the cost of data and price of smartphones come down, and as mobile internet and smartphone penetration rates surge tremendously, new pathways are paved for emerging sectors to evolve, such as that of the mobile application market, a market which is expected to have a value of Rs 2,700-crore by 2016.

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Every month, 100 million apps are being downloaded in India, ranging from productivity to localized music and language apps, to health and spirituality apps, to banking and e-commerce apps; with ones relating to dating and gaming growing in popularity.

India’s appetite for mobile apps is definitely here to stay. This booming app market is expected to increase demand for an additional three lakh developers in the next five years in India and introduce many new players into market.

Although holding great potential, the mobile app ecosystem has yet to become robust, and is still a place of volatility and ambiguity for developers. As more and more build upon previously produced content within the pursuit of new idea for a mobile application, the lines become blurred as to what is legally acceptable and what is not. For emerging start-ups, these blurred lines are irrelevant, with the main focus on the product and with insufficient manpower and money flow to invest time elsewhere. But for the developers that are on their way up the enterprise ladder, protection is sought out. As developers gain more leverage within app stores, and therefore more exposure, their applications may be at risk for being copied by others, and may begin to seek support commonly in the form of copyright or not-so-often patent protection. As this system of who seeks protection and who does not repeatedly manifests within the Indian mobile app ecosystem, an uneven playing field is further tipped in favour of those for who are willing to pay for a lawyer. Many a time, developers are not aware themselves that they may be infringing upon others’ intellectual property, and as foreign players begin to enter India’s mobile app market — often with overwhelmingly large IP portfolios—Indian developers may unknowingly be at risk for litigation for their own mobile applications.

This blog post kick-starts a new research initiative from CIS as I attempt to understand the many factors at play at the intersection of the mobile app ecosystem and Indian IP law. It is also the first in a series to attempt to paint a comprehensive picture of what the real implications are of intellectual property within the mobile app ecosystem for India. This initiative falls within CIS’s A2K Programme which ultimately aims to protect citizen, consumer and public interest via IP law reform and by offering alternatives to strictly proprietary-based intellectual property regimes, with those that incorporate principles of openness. These differentiating regimes will be looked at further with reference to mobile applications in the series of postings to come.

In performing this research I hope to attain the following achievements: 1) to understand the legal environment in which the mobile app ecosystem exists, 2) to evaluate India’s current IP regime with respect to its mobile application industry, and lastly, and 3) to work towards creating contextually appropriate conditions to harness the potential of mobile app technologies for India. Each of these objectives are looked at closer below, as I demonstrate how I intend to attain each goal, and for what reason:

To understand the mobile app ecosystem in light of India’s IP regime

As the mobile app market is still on its incline, there is little understanding of the implications of policy decisions on this ecosystem and the stakeholders implicated within it. Consequently, policy decisions are ill-informed and at risk of being determined by foreign players in pursuit of foreign interests. I hope to acquire a sufficient sense of understanding of these implications from the ground up: beginning with the developers themselves. In performing empirical research to survey how stakeholders within the ecosystem encounter Indian IP law, with a main focus on developers themselves, I hope to also be able to identify key determinants of IP-related disputes and areas of concern amongst mobile app developers and understand corresponding implications for the mobile app market, and in turn, the potential for this market’s impact in India.

To evaluate India’s IP regime with respect to the mobile app ecosystem

Through the carrying out of this initiative I hope to produce the research necessary that will get the debate started regarding the role of intellectual property in the mobile applications market in India. In order to do so, I hope to identify and address policy blindspots — if any — within the current IP regime, as well as to make evident the consequences of such. I also hope to be able to draw my own conclusions to assess the current IP regime with respect to the needs of various stakeholders and the market which they drive forward through investigating how policies related to IP law facilitate or hinder levels of innovation, creation, and protection for mobile applications and their developers, to the benefit or detriment of Indian mobile users.

To work towards creating conditions to harness the potential of mobile apps for India

It is evident that within the mobile app market, along with other mobile technologies, lies potential for the future of access to information and means of communication amongst mobile users from all corners of India. Relative trajectories for market trends and mobile and internet penetration should not be taken for granted, however, as the environment within which these trends take course may be considered to be volatile and may consequently enable or undermine what potential this market holds for current and future consumers. Through analyzing primary empirical evidence and research findings in conjunction with market reportings and projections, I hope to be able to identify key conditions for an enabling legal environment in which mobile applications are available and accessible for the fulfillment of their potential.

The IP debate is a highly contested one, with opposing viewpoints and varying manifestations across jurisdictions. In order to understand how India fits into this debate, with respect to the mobile app ecosystem, I intend to guide my research in asking the following questions:

  1. Who are the stakeholders and key players in the mobile app ecosystem, and how does each encounter India’s IP law?
  2. What are the determining and resulting factors at play at the intersection of the mobile app ecosystem within India and India’s IP law regime?
  3. What conditions would create an enabling legal environment for mobile app developers in terms of innovation and protection for their works?

This research will employ a multidisciplinary approach in incorporating theory and contextual aspects related to academic law, philosophy, political science, economics, history, and sociology in attempts to holistically understand the multifaceted picture in question and the different perspectives of such.

As preliminary research to this initiative, I have been in touch with mobile app developers of differing scales within the ecosystem. In speaking with each, I continue to observe a prevalent theme to be that of how each interprets Indian IP law. Regardless of whether they develop mobile apps for clients or their own enterprises, or are part of a small startup enterprise or an Indian success story, or even if they’re IP consultants themselves: in trying to understand the Indian IP landscape, one often encountered experience is confusion. As a result, the ambiguity of what may be protected under intellectual property and what may not be lingers on, to the advantage of some and the disadvantage of many. I intend to continue carrying out interviews with various stakeholders across India — with a special focus on Bangalore as India’s IT hub — including developers, incubators, lawyers, and even consumers, to better understand how each feels about Indian IP law, to what extent developers engage in protection for their IP, and if this theme of ambiguity is truly a consistent one throughout the mobile app ecosystem with regards to the Indian IP regime.

The original post was published here

(c) Centre for Internet & Society. 

The Centre for Internet and Society is a non-profit research organization that works on policy issues relating to freedom of expression, privacy, accessibility for persons with disabilities, access to knowledge and IPR reform, and openness (including open government, FOSS, open standards, etc.), and engages in academic research on digital natives and digital humanities.

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