How to protect your business idea

Your business idea could be life-changing – but it’ll take a little while to get started, and there’s always the chance that someone else has thought of it too. So, how can you protect your brilliant idea?

First of all, what is it?

How you can protect your idea depends on what it actually is. For example, if your idea is based on an invention, you will need to patent the process. Whereas if it’s more in the ‘intellectual property’ area, such as digital art or a piece of writing, you’ll need to look at copyright protection.

Is there a cost?

To officially register and protect an idea it won’t be cheap, especially if it’s a patent, and you’ll need to complete a detailed process. But if your idea’s worth the time, it could pay for itself.

Most ideas start out with a patent. James Dyson’s famous vacuum cleaner was patented years before it became a product, but if he hadn’t done so, others may have used the unique technology found in Dyson products today.

Patenting your business idea

Before you get started, make sure that your idea really is original. After all, it may already exist. It’ll need to be brand new to be patented. Once you’re sure your idea is unique, keep quiet about it until you’ve finished the patent process.

How to patent your idea

You’ll need to file a patent application. This part is free and you can do it online through or at a public library (if it has a patent department). You’ll also be able to perform an online search to validate your idea, and if nothing conflicting comes up you should find a registered patent agent or search bureau to help you continue. Remember, when looking for a search agent make sure they’re part of the Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys.

Know your idea inside out

You’ll need to explain what your idea is, how it works, how it could be made and at what cost (per unit). Include pictures and prototype plans, especially if it’s electrical or mechanical.

Where does it fit?

What’s your target market? What problem is it solving?

Look at other companies that would be potential competition for you. How big a share of the market do they have and could your idea compete? A patent agent will be able to advise you on this.

The patent process and costs

Applying will cost between £230 and £280, from filing your application to being granted a patent. However, completing a patent document requires expertise, so you may need a professional patent attorney and up to £4,000 to get it done for you (depending on the complexity of the invention).

Due to all the checks that need to be carried out to ensure your idea is unique, your patent can take up to 3 years to complete – although a fast track service is available.

Once your application is accepted, your idea is automatically protected for a year, though this can be extended at a cost.

Copyrighting your intellectual property (IP)

What is intellectual property?

If you create intellectual property such as literature, art or design for example, you automatically hold a 70-year copyright on them.

What can’t be copyrighted?

Slogans, names or titles can’t be copyrighted, though they can sometimes be trademarked.

How does copyright protect your business?

Copyright gives you the moral rights to your idea, which means that you can legally object to people using or copying your work.

You don’t need to apply for copyright, as it’s automatic in the UK – but you can take some steps to prevent others from using your idea, such as adding the international copyright symbol ©, year of creation and your name to your work.

Copyright will protect you internationally, too – you’ll have control over how your work is used, changed and publicised by others.

What if you employ people to create IP for you?

If you use contractors to create IP for you, they will automatically own the copyright to work they produce, unless they agree otherwise. Any agreement on IP should be included in their contract.

Remember – protecting your idea matters. Not only could it stop you from losing out, investors will want to know that the idea they’re supporting is safe.

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