Duplicating BeReal: The role of patent and copyright protections for startup social networks


Wikipedia, Jake Wilsted

BeReal’s features are soon to be integrated into other social media platforms.

Jake Wilsted, News Editor

A recent internet sensation, BeReal, has grabbed users’ enjoyment across the globe. BeReal aims to be an “anti-Instagram” social networking app by showcasing authentic representations of people’s lives. The app accomplishes this by allowing users to post one photo daily in a random two-minute timeframe, not allowing the user to stage their life.

Released in 2020, BeReal now reaches over ten million daily users, a surge from its ten thousand daily users in March 2021.

BeReal’s success has sparked the interest of other social media companies. TikTok and Instagram desire a piece of the pie.

TikTok is testing a feature named “TikTok Now,” which serves the same purpose as BeReal. Avid BeReal user Kylie Crome is frustrated that other social media platforms plan to  incorporate BeReal’s features into their apps. “Every app just turns into the same thing,” she said.

However, this is not the first time social media platforms have taken ideas from other apps. After the immense success of TikTok, Instagram introduced reels in August 2020 that mimics TikTok’s short-video viewing style. Youtube introduced a similar feature called YouTube shorts in September 2020. Even with these integrated features into Instagram and YouTube’s social networks, users still turn to TikTok for their short video-watching needs, pushing these copycat features into the dark. 

While some copied features don’t bring the company the recognition they desired, there are some instances where copied elements integrate well into other social networks. After the success of Snapchat stories, Instagram took that feature and added it to its platform in August 2016.

Over time, smaller apps known for unique features lose their individuality as social media giants mimic these successful ideas. Crome added, “I almost forgot what Instagram was like without stories.”

The ideas of copyright and patents are one to be considered as a means of protecting innovation and products from other social networks. Sam Cropper, a local attorney, and Sergio Becerra, a registered patent attorney, explained that patents act as a sword and a shield for companies. “A company would get a patent to protect themselves and their inventions and ideas. Patents serve as a sword and shield. A sword in that they can prevent others from selling, manufacturing, or using valuable inventions and ideas. A shield by ensuring that the inventor or company can use their own invention,” they shared. 

Cropper and Becerra explained three primary processes a social network can protect its features from competitors: patent protection, copyright protection, and trade secret protection. In this case, patent and copyright protection are the two applicable protections for BeReal’s features and other social media networks. “Patents protect how the application ‘works,’ copyright protects the ‘look’ of the feature (what the user sees),” they said. 

Unfortunately for BeReal, their application does not qualify for patent protection because BeReal does not present a new or innovative platform. Cropper and Becerra stated, “If the company’s application improves the functionality or use of the electronic device, then it can get a patent. It would likely be difficult for a company to get a patent for an application,” they explained.

What can be done? Will new ideas continue to be diluted into other apps, creating social networking monopolies where startups cannot thrive? Not exactly. 

While apps can incorporate the idea of other apps into their own, such as posting an unedited photo at a random point in the day, the visual design has hope for copyright protection. 

Companies could apply for copyright protection to protect the visual layout of their application, fighting to protect an essential element with which users are already familiar. “The legal process that a social media company could go through to protect any features in their application would be to file a lawsuit against the other company for breaching one of those three [protections],” Cropper and Becerra said. This allows for applications to keep an essential element of its individuality.

There are further complications surrounding social networks: they are international companies with a primary user base in America. Instagram is based in the United States, TikTok in China, and BeReal in France. International law and US protections will not always go hand-in-hand.

As more social networks present unique ideas, the hope for patent protection is little. If society wants to see a decrease in the integration of other’s ideas into other social networks, it is up to society to stop it.