My business idea is being copied – what can I do?

You’ve put time and thought into a great idea, invested in R&D, brought your idea to market – and now you find a competitor marketing the same idea.  What can you do?

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How can you protect your idea?

The different aspects of intellectual property can help to an extent, but the issue of copying a concept can become complex.

Copyright protects the original material expression of an idea, rather than the idea itself. Unless your competitor copied your original artwork, wording or code, copyright won’t assist – for example, if you have had an idea for a scheduling program, and a competitor saw your idea and released a scheduling program which doesn’t use any of the original coding or graphical elements of your program, you won’t be able to make a copyright claim.

What about trade marks? Have you applied for trade mark protection of your product’s distinctive name? If the competitor used your name or a substantially similar name to promote similar products, you can make a claim based on your registered trade mark.

Patents protect inventions. They must be new to the market. If you think that your idea may be patentable, consult a patent attorney – but you must keep your idea confidential until the patent application is filed. If you have publicised it yourself, it may no longer be patentable. You can use confidentiality agreements where you need third parties to develop your invention. Also, take practical steps to protect confidentiality – limit distribution and keep information in secure files.

The law of passing off and consumer protection law can help where the competitor is making their offering look like it is, or is associated with, yours. For example, your competitor might be marketing compatible goods which have the look and feel of your brand, or suggesting that they are your authorised distributor or licensee.

If none of these will help in your specific situation, there are still practical steps you can take:

– make sure that you have all the relevant variations of your domain name so that there is no chance that an unscrupulous competitor can pick up similar names to direct traffic to their own website;

– make sure you have your domains set to auto-renew, or diarise renewal dates, so that you don’t accidentally drop your domain and have it picked up by your competitor;

– ensure that your website security is strong so that you reduce the risk of losing customers if your website is offline;

– make sure you are actively marketing on all relevant social media channels;

– if you are using a name or logo that is distinctive, apply for a trade mark, including in relevant overseas markets you plan to expand to;

– once you have your trade mark, ensure you diarise renewal dates;

– keep a record of your marketing activities, including promotions, press releases and media coverage, in case you need to demonstrate your reputation in the market in future years; and

– ensure that your concepts are kept confidential, including using effective confidentiality agreements, until they are ready for release.

If you have any questions about how to protect your ideas, contact us.

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