Protecting your idea

You no sooner have a great idea before someone tries to steal it from you. Or flipside it and claim it was their idea first and in actual fact you stole it from them. Or perhaps they were in the room when you thought of it so therefore they deserve to be a co-owner.

A good idea can be worth big money, and many people can’t resist a slice of that pie. Or even just a taste of it. You only have to watch The Social Network or catch the news most nights to know that hugely expensive battles are fought over the ownership and revenue of massively popular ideas. The fallout can shatter friendships and important family relationships, and even undermine the success of your business.

Coming up with an idea – be it a recipe, a software program or a new kind of rocket fuel – does not mean you legally own that idea. You must take steps to protect your idea and get the legal rights of ownership.

Protecting your idea: Intellectual property

In the business and legal worlds, ideas are called “intellectual property”. Intellectual property (IP) represents the property of your mind or intellect.

Intellectual property can be:
- An invention
- A trademark
- An original design
- The practical application of a good idea. In business terms, this means your proprietary knowledge – a key component of success.

Intellectual property can be the all-important edge that sets your small business apart and drives its success. With markets becoming increasingly crowded and competitive, it’s essential to guard this precious asset like it’s the crown jewels!

How to protect your intellectual property

Number 1: Don’t talk about it
Loose lips sink ships! Do not even discuss with close friends and family. The closer they are to the idea, the greater the potential for trouble! Also, it takes just one friend to tell another friend and next thing you know that person’s wily Uncle is out in the back shed knocking up a prototype. What’s more, demonstrating, showing or talking about your idea in public (and that includes the Internet) could prevent you from getting legal right of ownership.

You can talk to employees, business partners or advisers about your idea but only on a confidential basis. Get written confidentiality agreements signed by these people, and non-disclosure agreements with suppliers and manufacturers. You could ask a solicitor specialising in this area to prepare these documents. To be even safer, you could use a variety of suppliers, ones that aren’t connected to each other and so therefore unlikely to discuss your idea.

Number 2: Make your ownership rights official and legal
The Intellectual Property Office of New Zealand (IPONZ) administers New Zealand’s IP rights system, specifically patents, trademarks, designs and plant variety rights. You have to apply for these rights. They don’t happen automatically.

Types of Intellectual Property (IP) rights

Patents for new or improved products or processes. A patent is a monopoly right giving exclusive use of an invention for up to 20 years. It can become a valuable business asset that can be bought, sold, transferred or licensed like any other property.

Find out more about what you can and can’t patent.

  • Trade Marks – a trade mark is a unique identifier, often referred to as a “brand” or “logo”. Once a trade mark is registered, the ® symbol may be used with the trade mark. Trade marks can include words, logos, colours, shapes, sounds, smells – or any combination of these. A trade mark enables businesses to distinguish their products or services from similar products or services offered by competitors. A carefully selected and managed trade mark can become a valuable business asset. Find out more about trade marks in New Zealand.
  • Designs for the visual appearance of an article. Registration of a design gives you legal protection for the external appearance of the product but not necessarily the concept or idea behind the product, such as its novel or original construction and functions (this is only protected by a patent). It must be new and distinctive – not been publicly used or published (including on the Internet) in New Zealand. Find out more about registration of a design in New Zealand.
  • Copyright refers to a bundle of exclusive rights given to owners of original works. In New Zealand, copyright is an automatic unregistered right that comes into existence every time an original work is created, published and performed. Copyright protects original works that fall in to one or more of the following categories; Literature
    - Drama
    - Music
    - Art
    - Sound recordings
    - Films
    - Communication
    - Typographical arrangements of published editions

Material is protected from copying from the time it is first written down, painted or drawn, filmed or taped. Find out more about copyright in New Zealand.