Many new entrepreneurs are very secretive of their new business idea. Their thinking is that if they were to share a business idea with others, they risk being copied. This is sometimes an unfounded fear and it is worth understanding how your startup can be legally protected and what options you have.
Can an idea for a startup be protected?
An idea itself cannot be protected under any intellectual property right. However expressions of an idea can be protected, for example when they are artistic in nature, copyright could subsist. Examples of this include a painting, a poem or a song. A business idea itself is not considered an artistic work. This is why it cannot be protected as a copyright, but once you start building the business, if it requires original coding then you could be copyright protected. The name under which a startup proposes to trade could be registrable as a trade mark, as another example. Similarly, if the business idea consists of producing an innovative product then there is a potential to file a patent.
In what ways can my startup be protected?
Use a nondisclosure agreement (NDA) – In cases where the business idea itself cannot be protected by an intellectual property right, as is often the case, an NDA can be used to prevent others from sharing or benefitting from the idea. Developers, employees and any others you share your idea with can be bound by an NDA. An NDA is a legal contract between two people that states what information will be shared between them and what information will not be shared with other people.
Some entrepreneurs have a policy of getting everyone to sign an NDA including investors. Some investors consider this to be an unnecessary step so it is advisable that you remain flexible when dealing with investors. They come across a large number of ideas and their intention is not to copy the ideas, only to judge their suitability for investment.
Start building your business and obtain copyright protection – As with many tech startups, you will have to code it, which could attract copyright protection. If you are getting developers to do the work, then you can and should ask them to assign the copyright to you. Copyright protection arises automatically in most countries and it is important to keep all records evidencing creation/authorship so that the copyright can be verified.
It is worth mentioning that open source frameworks and platforms (WordPress, Drupal etc.) are copyright of their creators and are available under specific creative licenses. If you to build any part of your startup using such open source tools, you will not be protected under copyright laws.
File a patent application if possible – A patent protects new inventions. In the UK and the EU, computer software programs are generally not patentable. There are exceptions to this rule, but you have to create a new method or process to obtain a patent. A software app or part of it may fulfil the necessary requirements to obtain patent protection. It is best to get advice from a patent attorney who can advise you on whether your tech startup is patentable.
If you are creating a new innovative product, then a patent is absolutely necessary so that you can financially exploit your product and stop others from making unauthorised use of it.
Register a trade mark for your brand – It is incredibly common to see the names and brands of successful startup ventures being used by others. Identical or similar names are considered trade mark infringement in certain circumstances and registering these as trade marks, assuming they fulfil the requirement of distinctiveness. A trade mark will make it easier to stop copycats in the markets you have filed your trade mark in. You can trade mark your name, logo, slogan and even a specific design. This is one important method of making sure your tech startup is protected from being copied by others. Especially your branding.
Having a tech startup can be hard work. Knowing how you can protect it is important. After all, you want to benefit from your hard work and not have to worry about being copied.
If you need help or advice about intellectual property (IP) protection for your startup, please contact us on 0207 791 9050 or email us on firstname.lastname@example.org.