As years go by and technology improves, the law must find a way to keep up with a changing world. Unfortunately, however, the law rarely adapts as quickly as we would all like. For example, say a startup company launches a disruptive mobile application that monitors your activities to suggest lifestyle changes. While users may enjoy the app’s benefits, the law on data collection and distribution leaves those users unprotected. The same can be said about copyright law and mobile app code ownership.

Often, an entrepreneur will come up with a great idea for a mobile application. However, the entrepreneur may lack the knowledge, skill, or time to write the code for the app. At that point, he/she commonly enters into an agreement with a third-party contractor to write the source code. You might think the entrepreneur automatically owns the source code; unfortunately, you would be wrong in your assumption.

Mobile App Code – Written by Employee

Under US copyright law, the author of a work is the de facto owner of the copyright. In general, in the case of mobile app code, the owner would be the coder. Under the example above, the entrepreneur must either hire an employee to code the app, or contract the work out. If the entrepreneur hires an employee to code the app, ownership is relatively straightforward. The source code would be a work made for hire, and the entrepreneur’s company owns the code. So far, so good.

Mobile App Code – Work for Hire

Most times, however, the company contracts mobile app code authorship to a third-party non-employee. Unfortunately, the work made for hire section of copyright law has not kept up with technology. The statute only includes a limited set of works that count as works made for hire. These include motion pictures, audiovisual works, translations, and atlases. However, the statute does not explicitly include computer code. While code may fall under an audiovisual work, the law is a grey area at the moment.

As such, the company must do some work to obtain ownership of the mobile app code. Specifically, the company must obtain a written assignment from the coder to perfect the chain of title and secure ownership. Companies often miss this important step during app development and it must be fixed later. This presents a risk, since parties may not want to sign an assignment document after project completion.


Ownership issues can doom a new venture, such as if a company doesn’t actually own its mobile app code. A company must ensure that it truly owns its intellectual property to attract meaningful investment. As technology changes, it is important to consult with intellectual property experts to protect your IP.

Can a copyright be assigned?

Yes – all forms of intellectual property can be assigned through a written agreement, including copyrights.

Who owns a copyright?

Under the default statute, the author owns a copyright, unless a written agreement says otherwise.

What works can be considered works made for hire?

Only 9 specific categories fall under the Works Made for Hire provision of 17 U.S.C. 101: 1) as a contribution to a collective work; 2) as a part of a motion picture or other audiovisual work; 3) as a translation; 4) as a supplementary work; 5) as a compilation; 6) as an instructional text; 7) as a test; 8) as an answer material for a test; and 9) as an atlas.