Protecting your Idea

You no sooner have a great idea when someone tries to steal it from you. Or claim that it was their idea first and you stole them from them. Or perhaps they were in the room when you thought of it so that makes them a co-owner.

A good idea can be worth big money, and many people can’t resist a slice of that pie. Or even just a taste of it. You only have to watch The Social Network or catch the news most nights to know that hugely expensive battles are fought over the ownership and revenue of massively popular ideas. The fallout can shatter friendships and important family relationships, and even undermine the success of your business.

Coming up with an idea – be it a recipe, a software program or a new kind of rocket fuel – does not mean you legally own that idea. You must take steps to protect your idea and get the legal rights of ownership.

Protecting your idea: Intellectual property

In the business and legal worlds, ideas are called ‘intellectual property’. Intellectual property (IP) represents the property of your mind or intellect.

Intellectual property can be:

  • An invention
  • A trademark
  • An original design
  • The practical application of a good idea. In business terms, this means your proprietary knowledge – a key component of success.

Intellectual property can be the all-important edge that sets your small business apart and drives its success. With markets becoming increasingly crowded and competitive, it’s essential to guard this precious asset like it’s the crown jewels!

Here’s how to protect your intellectual property

Number 1: Don’t talk about it

Not even to close friends and family. The closer they are to the idea, the greater the potential for trouble! Also, it takes just one friend to tell another friend and next thing you know that person’s wily Uncle is out in the back shed knocking up a prototype. What’s more, demonstrating, showing or talking about your idea in public (and that includes the Internet) could prevent you from getting legal right of ownership.

You can talk to employees, business partners or advisers about your idea but only on a confidential basis. Get written confidentiality agreements signed by these people, and non-disclosure agreements with suppliers and manufacturers. You could ask a solicitor specialising in this area to prepare these documents.

To be even safer, you could use a variety of suppliers, ones that aren’t connected to each other and so therefore unlikely to discuss your idea.

Number 2: Make your ownership rights official and legal

IP Australia administers Australia’s IP rights system, specifically patents, trademarks, designs and plant breeder’s rights. You have to apply for these rights. They don’t happen automatically.

Types of Intellectual Property (IP) rights

  • Patents for new or improved products or processes. A patent is an ownership right granted to any device, substance, method or process that is new, useful and inventive. It’s legally enforceable and gives you the right to commercially exploit the invention. You can’t patent:
    - Artistic creations
    - Mathematical models
    - Schemes
    - Purely mental processes
    Find out more about what you can and can’t patent.
  • Trademarks for letters, words, phrases, sounds, smells, shapes, logos, pictures, aspects of packaging or a combination of these, to distinguish the goods and services of one trader from those of another. A distinctive trademark to identify your business and products or service can be your most valuable marketing tool. Make sure you register yours! You may have more than one, i.e. a logo, plus a slogan, plus diagram, plus a product trademark.
    Find out more about trademarks in Australia.
  • Designs for the shape or appearance of manufactured goods. Registration of a design gives you legal protection for the visual appearance of the product but not the feel of the product, what it is made from or how it works. It must be new and distinctive – not been publicly used or published (including on the Internet) in Australia.
  • Copyright protects the original expression of ideas, not the ideas themselves. It is free and automatically safeguards your original works of:
    - Art
    - Literature
    - Music
    - Films
    - Sound recording
    - Broadcasts
    - Computer programs
    Material is protected from copying from the time it is first written down, painted or drawn, filmed or taped.
    Find out more about copyright in Australia.
  • Confidentiality/trade secrets including know-how and other confidential or proprietary information.

Different IP rights provide different kinds of protection. Often, more than one type may be necessary to fully protect your creation. Also note that International protection is applied for separately. Find out more about IP protection strategies.

Prototypes can help support your claim to ownership of your big idea. Check out our article on Prototype Design for more information.