What you need to know about protecting your ideas

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You’ve worked damned hard to grow your brilliant idea into the tangible form of a product or service. What protection do you have to prevent others from copying it? Is it worth the trouble to seek copyright, patent or trademark protection?

If you’ve done your homework, and strongly believe that your idea is unique, then it’s worth taking a look at having your intellectual property legally protected. It could be worth the cost because your brilliant new product or service gives you your entry into the marketplace as well as a competitive edge.

Let’s take this simple example of a business that comes up with a city guide in the form of a deck of playing cards. The guide has a dual purpose– the one side of the cards show interesting things to do in the city; the other side lets the children play a game. This is certainly a novel way to package a city guide but while the form or medium can’t really be protected, the content on the cards guide may certainly be copyrighted.

A relatively fast way to market is to imitate another product or service. When the imitation is different from the original product — a less expensive, stripped-down version – it’s probably all right. Although companies, particularly food manufacturers and retailers of basic grocery items, imitate all the time, it’s not wise to imitate another product or service without consulting a lawyer.

The law gives you protection for the inventions that can be patented, creative works that can be copyrighted and trade names that can be trademarked.

Copyright protection includes not only written works but also sound recordings such as digital audio podcasts. The text on greeting cards, postcards, stationery, jewellery, toys or any other products can be protected by copyright. Even vessel hull designs.

What’s not protected by copyright? You need to fix your products in a tangible form of expression – products, proprietary systems, software — before you can claim copyright. Ideas, procedures, methods, systems, processes, concepts, principles, discoveries, or devices are not necessarily copyright. This means a good business idea is hard to protect. Ideas are intangible and it’s hard to prove that you came up with the original idea.

A patent is a right granted by a government to an inventor. It gives the inventor the exclusive right, for a limited period, to stop others from making, using or selling the invention without the permission of the inventor. But for patent protection, you need to create a proof of concept, or a prototype, of your idea to include in your patent application. You can’t patent an idea – an invention is something tangible, brought into material existence as a manifestation of an idea.

Trademarks identify a source of goods or services and prevent others from using them.

You should be careful when approaching large companies to seek support for your idea or approach them as a potential partner. Deal as high up in the organisation as possible. Get hold of a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) to protect your idea. It’s possible to download an NDA from the Internet and change clauses in it yourself but this is pretty risky. Rather ask a lawyer to prepare an NDA. It’s not foolproof but at least it tells the company that you are serious about your business ideas.

Make sure that you also take someone with when you to go the negotiations as this is evidence that someone else has witnessed what you have said to the larger company.

Before you approach a potential backer, you’d probably need to deal with suppliers to make up your prototype or first batch of products. You also will need to show your product to prospective customers. How can you possibly give them an NDA to sign? Prospects would laugh in your face. Be selective about your test market and spreading the word about your idea in the initial stages.

The best practical advice on new ideas is to keep them to yourself until you make them into a tangible form. Be extremely selective about the people you discuss your product or service idea with.

If you think you have a strong case for legally protecting your idea, seek advice from a lawyer. Also secure insurance cover for public liability for your business selling your product or service and personal indemnity.

Remember that these days competition is merciless, whether online or off-line. Keeping your idea legally protected is extremely difficult. Thundering hordes of people pour over newspapers, business weeklies, business-to-business magazines and all sorts of websites, searching for ideas. Many are hungry to find an idea based on someone else’s product to develop and sell.

The only real protection you’ve got in such a desperately fierce market is to develop an idea that is superior to anything in the marketplace. Win over customers with your superior offer, price, service and trustworthiness.

Stay inspired
Chesney Bradshaw

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