Protecting ideas

Fact sheet P-21: Protecting ideas

Issued: 17th May 2007
Last amended: 17th May 2007

Can I copyright an idea?

Two of the most common intellectual property questions are ‘can I copyright my idea?’ and ‘how do I protect an idea?’ and there is often a great deal of myth and misconception surrounding this subject.

The Chambers 21st Century Dictionary defines an idea as “a thought, image, notion or concept formed by the mind” so by its very definition an idea is a totally intangible thing. You cannot protect something that cannot be seen, heard or touched, or otherwise quantified because in every appreciable sense it does not exist. In order for there to be any protection of an idea, we must first make the idea exist in some tangible way.

In the case of copyright law, it is the work that realises the idea that is protected (i.e. a document), and it is the act of recording that work that fixes copyright in the item itself.

So how can I protect my ideas?

Generally, there are 3 types of work that people ask about in this context:

  1. A treatment, format or synopsis for a TV show, book or film

    Copyright will protect the actual treatment, format or synopsis (as well as any other documents that detail the idea). It does not directly protect the idea, though registering the work would at least establish evidence of the content of your idea at that time.

    To illustrate the point about ideas in this context: You could for example argue that when the TV show ‘EastEnders’ was created, the thought process of the BBC may have been along the lines of ‘Coronation Street is such a popular show, we should do something similar’. Although the basic idea of the two shows is quite similar, there is no direct copying, so no infringement has occurred.

    Having said that, for most writers it is still worth registering before approaching publishers or production companies (etc.), and this will certainly provide independent evidence of the content of the work you are submitting to them. This evidence may perhaps be used to help establish that they acted in ‘bad faith’ if they then develop on your work without you, though your solicitor/lawyer should be able to provide more details and advise suitability of this in the specific circumstances.

    Clearly any direct copying of your material by another writer would also be a copyright infringement.

  2. Business ventures

    In the case of business ideas, it is again the recorded work rather than an intangible idea that is protected. Copyright would apply to items such as written documents, artwork, etc. - i.e. a Business plan, promotional literature, website, logo, and such items could certainly be registered.

    If a competitor used your work, (i.e. copied or adapted your promotional literature or stole content from your website to promote their own product), you could certainly take action, as this would be a breach of copyright.

    You could also take action if a competitor tried to ‘poach’ customers by using your name or branding (or something similar), this is know and ‘passing off’.

    There is however little you can do to prevent someone else starting a business based on a similar idea. As long as they do not copy your work or poach customers by passing off, this is just fair competition.

  3. Inventions or industrial processes

    If the idea is an industrial process or invention, it may be possible to apply for a patent, but even then you must fully document what you are trying to protect.

    Patents are grants that give an exclusive right to use, sell or manufacture the invention. Patents are registered at a national or territory level with an appointed government body. Patents typically take 2 to 3 years to be granted.

    As the patent process is quite slow, if in the meantime if you need to show your invention to others it is worth using a confidentiality agreement to ensure their silence.

    UK Copyright Service often receive registrations from inventors who are seeking to ensure that they have some immediate evidence of the date of their ideas. This can be helpful if the patent application is challenged, but it should not be viewed as an alternative to a patent.

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The use of this fact sheet is covered by the conditions of a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-No Derivative Works License.

This fact sheet is intended only as an introduction to ideas and concepts only. It should not be treated as a definitive guide, nor should it be considered to cover every area of concern, or be regarded as legal advice.

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Protecting ideas fact sheet from the UK Copyright Service.