Mobile application content would be protected by copyright law. Any background algorithms would be trade secret because no one outside the company can actually access them. The name and appearance would be protected by trademark and the functionality can be protected by a patent.
If your content is good enough that people would want to copy it, then you know you have a good product or service. In the end, some of the content that you have will be copied but you have the competitive edge because you will have been doing it longer. Just make a better product and service and stay ahead and you won't really have an issue with protecting it.
Joseph's right, the same intellectual property laws that protect all other technological developments will also protect mobile apps. Whether mobile apps (or other software) is protectable by patents has been a matter of debate in the United States for about 50 years. The Supreme Court is taking a software patent case next year that the optimistic patent attorneys among us hope will resolve the dispute.
If you are curious about that patent case, search "software patent" and "cls bank".
Good answers by Joseph and Todd. Few other points.
1. File First, Launch Second
The production of apps allows for rapid development cycles, however, potential patent rights may be lost by rushing an idea to market without adequate patent protection. If a new and useful idea is included in an app that is available for download or described in documentation accessible by the public prior to filing a patent application, foreign patent rights may be lost. In addition, if an inventor waits more than a year from the date of sale, offer for sale, or public disclosure to file a patent application, the U.S. patent rights are lost. To reduce this risk, a developer should consider filing a patent application in the United States Patent and Trademark Office prior to offering an app for download or initially disclosing an idea. Filing a patent application can be a costly investment, however, there are economical options that could be pursued to secure one's patent rights, while deferring any larger financial investments until the viability of an app has
been market tested.
2. Choose Your Name Wisely
Developers must avoid selecting a name for an app that causes confusion with a similar name in the marketplace. Use of a confusing name for an app or development company is an invitation to a lawsuit that could result in an injunction against the use of that name. A trademark search should be conducted prior to adoption of a name to determine whether any registered marks exist that will prohibit the use or registration of the new name. This search will also uncover unregistered marks that still may prevent a trademark owner from utilizing the mark in specific geographic areas. Once cleared for availability, a trademark application should be filed.
3. Open Source - You May Get What You Pay For
Incorporating open source software into an app may help decrease development time and associated costs, but doing so may result in substantial loss of rights. For example, certain open source software licenses may require that any distributed app which includes any portion of the open source software be distributed for free and in open source format. As a result, developers need to carefully review all license agreements associated with any open source code included in an app to insure that any developed code is not dedicated to the public and all rights are lost. The use of open source software is not prohibited when developing apps, but programmers must be mindful of all restrictions associated with any open source software.
4. Know What You Own
Developers often assume that ownership of all intellectual property rights, including
copyrights, such as software code, icons, graphics and even advertising materials are automatically secured by the company because they were produced by employees or by contractors. Generally, ownership of intellectual property can only be transferred in writing. Companies will be hard pressed to prove that the original work is theirs unless they institute a company-wide protocol for the written assignment of ownership of all intellectual property from employees of the company. In situations where third party contractors are used to create code or content for an app, a written agreement must be executed to convey all intellectual property created in support of an app to the company.
Yes, there are. To begin with please have a stringent non-disclosure agreement signed with the in-house/contract employees and any person involved in the development of this app (i.e. design, applied technology, content etc.). Secondly, get an assignment agreement signed with the third parties and developers clearly assigning all the IP rights in your/your company's name. Once assigned, please check if you can file patents, trademarks and copyright applications around the app. While distributing the app, please ensure that you are in total control of such distribution. Hope this is helpful.
The usual way to protect a computer program is by copyright registration. There is also something called a software patent, but that is a more involved process.
I would need a bit more clarification as to what you mean by "content". The graphics/design associated with the mobile app may be protected under copyright - the literature you have within the app may also be protected under copyright. But if the literature is factual, then those facts will not be protected under copyright.
In general, if your mobile app solves a problem (or, in other words, performs a useful function), you should look into seeing if you can get it patented: consult attorneys for free and read through our library on our site.