Carnegie Mellon University


August 28, 2018

Just Regular Candy Crush Please: Copycat Apps Leave Us Yearning for the Original

By Param Vir Singh, Carnegie Bosch Associate Professor of Business Technologies at the Tepper School of Business

Ideas are being ripped off with reckless abandon in the app market. It’s a matter of huge concern for developers, and with good reason. Copyright protection is virtually nonexistent in this virtual world, due to the fact that identifying and wrangling all the copycats is nearly impossible.

I was first clued in to the copycat app problem when my friend convinced me to download CandyCrush onto my phone. “It’s so addictive,” she warned. But when I went to the app store, I couldn’t figure out which app was the original game.

Pointing this out to my friend, a fellow researcher, we began looking into the issue of copycats to pursue for research. Right away, my coauthors and I had difficulty parsing out the original apps from a sea of imitators. We developed a technique that can be replicated by others, which is part of the paper recently published in the INFORMS journal Information Systems Research. Our research method has been able to identify, with nearly 92 percent accuracy, whether an app is an original or a copycat. Five years and more than 10,000 apps later, we’ve made some interesting discoveries.

For starters, it seems that copying – and improving – on someone else’s app is an easier way to gain traction than to develop an original idea. And if the copycat is of a high quality, it drives down demand for the original.

As might be expected, this phenomenon has put a significant damper on the development of new apps. From 2012 to 2017, the number of original apps released each month was cut in half, decreasing from 90 percent to 45 percent, despite the total number of apps released per month growing from 50 to more than 400. With developers holding little power to brand their content and enjoying little in the way of intellectual property protection, these trends don’t appear to be reversing anytime soon.

However, low-quality copycat apps had the opposite effect: They actually created higher demand for the original.

So what does all of this information mean? If developers can’t stop the copycats from proliferating, they can at least beat them at their own game. Rather than resting on the laurels of popularity, developers should be thinking in terms of continuous innovation, upgrade, and improvement. In other words, if you can’t stop them, you might be able to outrun them. Apple is a prime example of a tech company always in a mode of improvement. That’s one reason why it continues to outpace its competition, even though its products tend to cost more. Consumers view it as the standard-bearer for innovation. Similarly, by raising the bar frequently, developers can reduce the chances of imitators siphoning off their customers.

Without an overhaul in copyright laws, the decline in new apps may continue. But the upside is that companies may create better versions of old favorites, and in doing so, remain a step ahead of the curve.