TikTok Clone – India’s Mitron App Controversy: Is App Cloning a Sinister?

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The current article delves into the legalities of app cloning. It emphasises upon the recent Tik Tok clone: Mitron. The article will clarify why there is a large number of clones on various platforms. It will also provide the rationale behind inaction against these clones.

Introduction

With the #VocalForLocal pledge taking root in India and anti-Chinese sentiments on the rise, many indigenous app developers have rushed to earn a quick buck. The go-to method for many of these developers has been to make clones of popular apps. Thus free-riding on the success of hard-working developers.

A small visit to the Playstore will shed light on the grim reality of the situation. Hundreds of clones of popular games like “Ludo” and “Angry Birds” flood the marketplace. But a recent success story has danced in limelight – the Mitron app. It is a Tik Tok clone that has cashed upon the prevailing sentiments of the populous. Especially the recent fall in the rating of the Tik Tok app.

The Mitron App

The Mitron app claimed to be an Indian made app that is set out to compete with the Chinese made Tik Tok. The sheer popularity of the word ‘Mitron’ and the love of Indians for TikTok has made it the number 2 app on Playstore. It now has almost 5 million downloads within one month of its launch. The TikTok clone has amassed a 4.7-star rating on Google Play store too.

The Revelation of the Truth of ‘Mitron’

The façade faded soon enough. It soon became known to the public eye that the app is not an Indian app. The app owner Shibank Agarwal, a student of IIT Roorkee, had purchased it from an outsider. The source code of the app was of a Pakistani coding company Qboxus. The student purchased the app from the company for a meagre sum of ₹ 2600. The application was then renamed as Mitron and launched in India. Before launching the application in India, they did not even bother changing the coding. Nor did it change the privacy policy of the app.

The lack of a proper privacy policy has made its user base susceptible to a slew of threats. The app has permission to access the camera, location and microphone of the user. This entitles the app to vast amounts of user data. The data can be sold for commercial gain in the absence of a robust privacy policy. Moreover, the site which hosts the backed services of the application appeared to be blank until recently.

A study conducted by Rahul Kankrale, an Indian vulnerability researcher, has exposed many security issues. The ‘Login with Google’ feature, embedded in the Mitron App, does not generate any secret tokens for verification. This entails that within minutes, a person could hack any user on the platform. Finally, the app does not allow its users to delete their accounts permanently.

Playstore removed the Mitron app early June. This was due to it violating many of its technical policy conditions.

Legal Viewpoint

As we can observe from the video game industry, there isn’t much an app developer can do against cloning. What it can do is not infringe upon protected rights. The above is due to the difficulty in proving an app as a replica in court. The clone can easily tweak its features a little to prove that it is different.

A tweak to the source code means that the app shall exempt the same from being an infringement. This is because most apps draw inspiration from other existing apps. Moreover, basic elements such as “liking” a video or streaming cannot be patented. If this were to be allowed TikTok itself would be a copy of the Vine platform. The Vine Platform would inturn be infringing Youtube’s rights. All the royalties would land up in the hands of a handful of developers. Those developers who were present during the nascent stages of the internet.

The Intellectual Property Regime

Trademarks can be protected under the Intellectual Property regime. The name ‘TikTok’ is protected by Trademark Law. Its unauthorised usage will lead to hefty damages. Another example of unique protection within applications is one of Namco’s. Namco’s has patented mini-games that appear during the loading screen. This is a unique addition that was not common parlance.

TikTok would only be able to maintain a suit against Mitron if the latter had infringed upon the former’s protected elements. The contention here is whether Qboxus had tweaked the TikTok code enough to save itself from a suit. If that were the case then even Mitron would be in the clear as the app owner had licensed the software.

The Indian Contract Act Regime

The only route to seek justice against the Mitron App under such a scenario would be Section 17 & Section 18 of The Indian Contract Act, 1872. Section 17 states that parties indulging in “fraud” or fraudulent transactions are liable under contract law. Section 18 lays down the liability who has indulged in misrepresentation of a fact. The above-mentioned provisions are applicable against Mitron. Especially when Shibank claims it to be an Indian app. The Founder of Qboxus, however, opposed this fact. It was the Made in India tag that propelled the app to its current success and made users download it.

Role of App Stores

The app stores are not much capable to do in this regard. This is due to the sheer number of clones that have entered the marketplace.

Asking the stores to develop an application to screen millions of new apps would need investments in millions. The app would have to not only screen for clones but run background checks on licensing agreements too. It also would have to apply regional/national law in each case. Even the slightest error in flagging an app could have disastrous consequences. The same phenomenon is now seen with rampant demonetization of many YouTube content creators. The best possible option is to take advantage of the inbuilt “Report” feature in stores. Here individual users can report the app for cloning.

Author’s Suggestions

The personal suggestions of the author for what to do in case of app cloning are:-

  1. Write to the developer of the clone that you will take legal action if the app isn’t taken down. More often than not a simple mail is all it takes to bring down a clone.
  2. Inform the App Store. This could be via the report feature or by emails. Encourage your users to do the same. Sensitise the users about clones and request them to report the same.
  3. If the clone infringes upon a registered trademark or a patent, then contact a lawyer. The same will provide a fighting chance in Courts. If this is not the case, do not seek a legal route. This is because, in the failure of the suit, it is difficult to recoup hefty costs.

Conclusion

The Mitron App has made a dashing return to the Playstore. But the author would still urge the viewers not to download it. This is due to the ‘n’ number of privacy and security issues that still plague the app.

It is unfortunate that clones bask in the success of hard-working app developers. We can only hope that stores display warnings about the issue of clones, as they did for Fortnite. Moreover, we as individuals can pledge to increase awareness and support authentic developers.


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