Android app makers face difficulties that iPhone developers do not. It is harder to make money from Android apps than iOS apps, for instance. One of the (several) reasons is the ease with which pirates can copy and sell Android apps outside the purview of Google Play. The United States Department of Justice took notice this week and seized three websites accused of illegally distributing Android apps. The seizure of third-party app stores is the first of its kind, and some players in the Android ecosystem may applaud government intervention. But will it help Android developers solve the piracy problem?

The three domains seized by the DOJ and Federal Bureau of Investigations were, and Applanet was perhaps the biggest of the three and from its description on Twitter, it is no wonder why it attracted the DOJ's attention.

“Applanet is an exact replica of the android market. Get free paid apps. Directly to your phone!”

The Applanet developer Twitter account had not posted an update since March this year and the official Applanet Twitter account has been privacy-restricted. SnappzMarket stated its mission to “make the open source operating system truly open.” AppBucket is a little more circumspect with a simple tagline of “Whatever YOU want us to be!”

The DOJ apparently think they are pirates. 

“Software apps have become an increasingly essential part of our nation’s economy and creative culture, and the Criminal Division is committed to working with our law enforcement partners to protect the creators of these apps and other forms of intellectual property from those who seek to steal it,” said assistant attorney general Lanny Breuer in a statement.

Third-party Android stores like this are easy to create. All a pirate needs to do is get access to an openly available Android Package (APK) file and load it into their own store or copy the code outright and republish the app. The Android operating system makes it easy to download (or “sideload”) these files from stores outside of Google Play. The easy ability to copy and disseminate illegitimate versions of Android apps makes for a perfect storm for piracy. 

Without fundamentally changing the nature of publishing Android apps, Google can do little to stop pirates. It could force developers to sign and lock down their apps via digital rights management or make it harder to access APKs. As of yet, Google has not made enough changes to how Android apps are published to stem the flood of piracy that affects developers. 

Now we see the federal government taking an interest. Several times a year we see stories of this nature where a foreign website is seized by U.S. authorities over copyright violation. For instance, the U.S. Immigrations and Customers Enforcement Agency (ICE) seized several foreign domains last year that were thought to be illegally streaming professional sports games. 

While Android developers may be looking for any shelter in the piracy storm, many will not agree with the DOJ’s seizure of these domains. The argument against domain seizures is that the U.S. agencies seize domains without a court ruling and violate the rights of the businesses being seized. 

In the end, the domain seizures by the DOJ are only a blip on the radar and a warning to other pirates. The real issue needs to be addressed by the developers themselves and by Google. The government can seize every domain it can find that pirates Android apps, but until the problem is eliminated at its root, the pirates and their customers will always find a way.