Game developers struggle with piracy, malware in Android Market

by Phil Hornshaw

One of the biggest problems in the mobile gaming sphere is piracy. Game developers struggle with “knock-off” versions of their titles popping up in app stores where it’s hard for players to distinguish between originals and copies, and dishonest developers have as much to gain (or more) than the creators of innovative, original games.

A story in UK newspaper The Guardian details some of these problems being seen by game developers in the Android Market. It cites a few developers who are struggling to make money in the space because a number of issues with the way Google (GOOG) handles its app store, but a really big one is a slow reaction to copyright infringement claims.

According to the story, several developers the paper contacted have knock-off games that are more or less direct copies crowding up the Android Market. And not just one or two, but multiple copies of the same game, sometimes offered for free (and supported by ads) against their paid originals.

It’s not just a big problem for developers. Google recently busted 50 apps in the Android Market that included malware, or dangerous software meant to break down a device’s security and leave it open to threats of viruses or data theft. The apps containing the malware were copies of existing, harmless apps, according to The Guardian’s story, which is what allowed them to sneak onto the devices of thousands of Android users.

Developers blame Google. The big issue is that the Android Market is fairly open, without the rigorous screening that apps go through in other markets -- the iTunes App Store for Apple’s (AAPL) iPhone and iPad, for example. Developers say that the open-source nature of Android leaves a pretty wide-open hole for piracy, and that Google is also slow to respond to claims of copyright infringement over apps. One developer in the story complains that after he notified Google that his app had been copied, it still took a couple of days for the company to react and remove the infringing apps -- and the developer who did the stealing is still allowed to sell apps in the Android Market.

Another developer the story cites has apps that clearly seem to be copies, and its contact information leads nowhere. That leaves developers with few options except to hope Google will listen and help them out.

Not just a problem for Google

Despite developers pointing at Google’s administration and the openness of the Android Market, this is by no means a Google-only problem. With all its supposed app-vetting, Apple’s App Store suffers from copied apps and piracy as well. I’ve spoken with developers who have had apps copied in the App Store, and they all mentioned the slow speed with which Apple addresses such concerns. A lot of attention was recently paid to those stories, and Apple responded by adding copyright infringement to its reasons for rejecting an app. Some identified copies still persist in the App Store even now, however.

While clearly this is a larger problem for mobile than just Android apps, developers finding their Android apps open to copyright infringement isn’t doing the platform any favors. Like it or not, Android is still playing catch-up in many ways to Apple, and with Amazon (AMZN) ready to roll an Android app store pretty much any day, Google needs to make strides to protect developers and users alike, and make developing for Android as safe and beneficial as possible. Android needs quality apps and innovative people making them. Something relatively minor, like making sure the things those developers make are protected from those who would steal them, should be one of the baseline actions Google takes every day.