When I first got my iPhone 3G, I downloaded many, many, ridiculous novelty apps of questionable utility. To this day, friends still ask to see iPint, a virtual beer glass simulator which allows you to tip the iPhone and pretend to drink a virtual beer (which has now been pulled from the store).
The app, little more than a clever Carling (a subsidiary of U.S.-based Molson Coors Brewing Co.) advertising gimmick, also acted as a nice tech demo for the iPhone’s motion sensing capabilities. At the time, I was aware of the pricier iBeer ($2.99) by Hottrix, but, like many people, I opted for the free iPint. And rightly so, since I deleted the app after about a week of showing off, at which point most of my immediate circle were really tired of me and my iPhone.
That crucial decision to forego the $3 premium that I and so many others made shot iPint up the charts, quickly securing it a place in the top 10 most popular free apps. iBeer, on the other hand, languished in obscurity by comparison, going neglected and undrunk for far too long. Hottrix’s first move was to approach Coors with an amicable solution, the terms of which remain undisclosed. This move was apparently not well received, as Coors now faces a $12.5 million lawsuit brought by the smaller company, who is seeking restitution for lost profits.
Hottrix has a couple of things going for them regarding this suit. For one, they can prove that their concept predates Coors’ with a tech demo video posted to YouTube in July 2007. Second, Steve Sheraton, iBeer’s developer, was approached by the Beattie McGuinnes Bungay advertising agency for permission to use iBeer to promote, you guessed it, Coors products. It will be pretty hard for Molson Coors Brewing Co. to argue that they developed their application without being significantly influenced by one that predates their own and that they actively tried to reach a marketing agreement with, albeit through a third party. Hottrix will have little trouble proving lost profits, though, since Apple’s decision to pull iPint from the U.S. App Store was immediately greeted with a rise in iBeer’s popularity, allowing it to break the top 25 most downloaded apps.
While this seems to be a pretty flagrant example of possible infringement, there are quite a few copy-cat applications in the app store. Depending on what precedents are set and how much money changes hands, this case could usher in more suits from other companies in similar situations. Let’s hope not, because I for one cherish the ability to choose from among 200 different tip calculators. If it does happen, though, you’d better get those tech demos up on YouTube early and often. One video with a cheesy soundtrack could be worth a thousand words in court.