You’d think you own your app’s code when you hire an app development agency, but that isn’t always the case. The agency’s contract, choice of software licenses, and other factors can prevent you from owning the source code you’re paying someone to write.

Your Agency’s Contract Defines Who Owns the Code

In the United States, when you hire a software development agency, their work is typically considered work for hire. Look for phrases such as “work for hire,” “work-made-for-hire,” and explicit mentions of copyright assignment or licensing when reviewing your contract.

You can read about protecting your app idea to see what you should expect in a contract. An explicit assignment of work in your contract will ensure everyone knows who owns your app’s code. However, you should always consult an attorney if you’re unsure of your rights under a contract.

Software Used by Your Developers Affect Who Owns Your App’s Code

The first time you hire someone to build an app, you may assume they’re writing all of your app’s source code from scratch. This is rarely the case, and for good reason. Even basic apps have some incredibly complex features under the hood. While logging in to an app may not sound like an impressive feat, there are plenty of developers who have spent significant time ensuring login screens work exactly how you’d expect. So why reinvent the wheel when someone else has already done it better?

App developers use existing modules of code—called software libraries—to take care of standard but surprisingly complex features like logging in. Thankfully, many popular software libraries are commercially licensed. That means you can consider those libraries as good as your own code in terms of your source code ownership.

Which Software Licenses Are Okay to Use?

Some software libraries come with licenses that prohibit you from using them for commercial purposes. Even more frighteningly, some software libraries require you to make all of your source code publicly available if you use them in your project! There are countless types of software licenses. You can use a resource like TLDRLegal to read a decent summary of the most popular types of licenses. Generally, Apache, BSD, and MIT licenses are going to be just fine for your app.

An Agency’s Payment Terms May Dictate Source Code Delivery Terms

Even if you technically own your app’s code, your app developers may try to hold you over a barrel to collect on an invoice. Some contracts require you to pay outstanding invoices before receiving your code. While you want to pay them for their work, the right payment terms will protect everyone’s interests.

Instead of holding your app’s code until you pay an invoice, suggest prepaying a sufficient amount so you always have access to the source code. For example, if your developers expect payment on NET 30 terms, offer a deposit that covers at least 30 days of work. Then—so long as you pay according to schedule—your developers can provide the latest source code whenever you wish.

Is Copyrighting My App’s Code Necessary?

For most apps, filing for an official copyright is not useful. While you want to protect your company’s trademarks and patentable work, you’re rarely going to see people directly infringing upon source code copyrights. There are countless ways to write similar features in software. That means a software copyright is difficult to enforce unless you can somehow prove someone made a verbatim copy of your code.

Unless your competitive advantage is the source code itself, you don’t need to officially file for a copyright. However, be sure to check your source code for copyright notices that your developers may have added. Some developer tools will automatically add copyright notices to each source file. Those notices may incorrectly assign copyright to your developers if they leave them in your code.

With Twin Sun, You Own Your App’s Code

We follow our own advice when writing contracts, negotiating payment terms, and choosing software libraries. When you partner with us, you are the only one who owns your app’s code. Learn more about what it’s like to work with us or contact us to start a conversation.