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How can I protect my business idea?

How can I protect my business idea?

You can protect your idea by treating it as confidential (a trade secret) and/or using a Non-Disclosure Agreement when you share it with others before your product or service is ready for the market. Before you turn your idea into a product or service, you should also start thinking about how to ensure you enjoy exclusive rights. Various types of intellectual property (IP) rights, including patents, trade marks, design rights, copyright are available to protect the execution of your idea and parts of your website.

You should not underestimate the value of intellectual property assets. If you do not take precautions on time, you could run the risk of losing your rights or be liable for having infringed the IP rights of others.

Use a Non-Disclosure Agreement before sharing your idea

Before putting your idea into practice, you might want to share it with future potential partners, suppliers or customers, and employees. In order to be able to approach them without the fear of them stealing your idea, ask them to sign a non-disclosure agreement.

A non-disclosure agreement is a legal document between you and another partner not to disclose information you have shared (such as commercial information, business plans, technical knowledge, design). It makes sure that this information cannot legally be passed on.

Select the appropriate protection for your IP

First of all, you must think about what type of intellectual property rights your business needs (i.e. what you want to protect and what protection is appropriate for your business model). You must also decide whether you would like to extend this protection to other countries, in order to optimise the associated costs and activate European or worldwide procedures. The precautionary measures to protect the intellectual property aspects of your product or service from abuse, include:

•    Copyright: grants the creator of original literary, musical or artistic works control of its use and distribution. This protection applies to your website design or original creative website content (such as photographs, broadcasts, graphics, music and videos) as well as to your databases and  software;
•    Trade marks: grants the owner of the “sign”, the capability to be distinguished from the goods and services of other enterprises. They may be a logo, a symbol, a word or even packaging or the shape of goods. They can be used to protect your business name, logo, branding, domain name and other signs posted on your website;
•    Patents: are granted to protect your inventions, provided that they are new, involve an inventive step and are susceptible of industrial application. They can be used to protect your e-commerce systems, search engines or other technical Internet tools;
•    Industrial design rights : are used to protect your product’s visible appearance as long as it is new and has individual character. They prevent third parties from copying it (find more about it at the Wipo website);
•    Know- How and Trade secrets: they can cover all sort of information and knowledge, from search algorithms to manufacturing processes and lists of costumers or providers. If you want to keep this information to yourself and prevent others from misappropriating it you should take steps to protect its confidentiality (example: keeping them in a safe lock, creating passwords and limiting access rights, etc.).If you want or need to share it with business partners you should first make them sign a non-disclosure agreement  so that they contractually bound not to use or disclose it without you authorisation
•    Domain name

The grant of copyright and trade secrets is automatic. Consequently, there is no need to take official action. It comes into effect immediately. Some Member States provide for registration of your work. Check with the relevant office in your country. However, that is not the case for the majority of trade marks, industrial design and patents, which require registration formalities.
If you want to find out more about intellectual property, the Innovaccess website provides general and national information about the most important forms of IP protection, as well as the costs of these in the different countries. Select your country on the website and find information on how to apply, costs and more about all the different Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs).

Protect your IP across the EU

If you expand your business across Europe, you can save money and time by protecting your intellectual property in several Member States or at EU level. This will make sure that your innovation and creations are protected across the EU and that you are remunerated.

An European Union Trade Mark (ETM) offers you protection throughout the EU. You can register these via the European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO). An online CTM application costs EUR 900 and you can file it in any official language of the EU. To obtain a European Union trade mark is much less expensive than applying for the same trade mark in each member state through their national intellectual property offices. If you want to register a trade mark in only one country, you must file an application with the appropriate national or regional trade mark office (select your country to find the competent office).

Designs can also be protected for the whole Union if use the Community design system that is also managed by the EUIPO.

For information on European Union trade marks and the community designs (costs, procedures, etc) please check the EUIPO's website.

When you want to protect your invention with a patent, you can apply for:

•    National patents granted by the competent national authorities if you opt for protection limited to the territory of your country (select your country to find your national patent office);
•    European patents may be filed at the national patent office or the European Patent Office (EPO) . This is a single procedure for granting patents in 38 contracting states. You must choose the countries in which you wish to have protection. Applications should be filed in or later translated into English, French or German. Once the patent has been granted, you must translate it into the official language of the other states you have designated and validate the European patent in these States within a short time limit after the grant (find out more in the step-by-step guide “How to apply for a European patent”);
•    A unitary patent which will transform the European patent into one single patent once the agreement on a Unified Patent Court has been agreed. This will ensure uniform protection for an invention in 25 Member States (all except Croatia, Italy and Spain) on a one-stop shop basis (find out more).

Note that one of the conditions for being protected by a patent is that the invention needs to be new. Therefore, make sure not to disclose any information related to your invention (e.g. publish an article about it) before filing for the patent.

Establish FTO, meaning Freedom to Operate. A new product may incorporate a patented technology owned by a third party. In these cases it is crucial to demonstrate whether the IP rights belonging to others may be infringed, in case, for example, that the organisation manufactures certain technologies  or sale them (find out more). 

In some European countries, including Belgium, France, Ireland, Luxembourg, Netherlands and the UK, you can benefit from a tax deduction for patent income (i.e. income generated from exploiting IP). This is known as a ‘Patent Box’ regime.

Be aware of IP risks when using texts, music, photos or videos from others

Using, adapting, reproducing or distributing someone else’s creative work, such as literary works, paintings, photographs, drawings, films, movie clips, music (including lyrics and arrangements), software codes etc., without the prior agreement or remuneration of the person who holds the copyright may be a ‘copyright infringement’.

Some national legislation provides exceptions and limitations to copyright. The list and scope of these exceptions vary from one country to another. There are, for instance, exceptions in the Copyright Directive allowing quotation, parody, some types of use of copyright works for teaching purposes, etc. The application of these exceptions allows users, in certain special cases, to reproduce, distribute or make protected works available to the public without the prior consent of their rights holders, as well as, in some cases, without payment of any kind of compensation.

Expressing in your own words ideas and facts that you have found in books or journals is not illegal unless you do not give proper credit to the author (which would then be plagiarism).

If you want to use copyrighted materials from someone else, and do not know whether they are copyrighted and who the copyright owner is, there are specialist bodies you can contact that are responsible for collecting royalty payments on behalf of copyright holders. They may also contact you if you are using copyright materials without prior agreement.

Note that you will also be infringing other people’s rights if you do not:

•    Obtain permission to use a patented invention for commercial purposes. This generally takes the form of a licence for which you have to pay. A patent gives its owner the right to prevent others from making, using or selling the invention without permission and to collect damages for any unlicensed use. Find out about all the inventions already patented by visiting Espacenet, a free-of-charge database for searching for patents registered worldwide. There is also a helpdesk to answer any queries you may have.

If you want to refer to someone else's trade mark in a text you should take precautions.. Always distinguish a trade mark by using a different font or other means of distinguishing it from any surrounding text (e.g. by placing it within quotation marks, or using bold, italic or underlining). If the trade mark is registered, you should use the appropriate registration symbol for the country in which the products or services are advertised and sold (which in most countries is the ® symbol). The European Union Intellectual Property Office can provide guidance on proper trade mark use.

Make your ownership rights clear on your website

You should make it clear to anyone navigating your website, that the material on it is protected. You can, for instance, mark your trade mark with the trade mark symbol or a copyright notice. Another option is to use watermarks that embed copyright information into the actual digital content.

Be aware that when you use independent contractors for your website design and/or content, they usually own the IP rights to the works they create for you even when you have paid for them. Therefore, you should make sure that before embarking on your collaboration you have a clear, valid and written agreement stating who will own the IP rights of each element. Among other things, make sure you receive ownership rights or a licence that is broad enough to enable you to update your website or make changes on your website without having to ask the web designer for permission and pay additional fees.

Make sure also that visitors to your website know what they can do with the content. Consider having a copyright notice in your disclaimers in order to let visitors to your website know what they can do with the page (for instance, what conditions apply if they are allowed to create links to your site or download or print the content) as well as who they can contact if they want to use the material.

Conditions and administrative procedures to apply for your IPR

Member States

Description

 

Visit the website of National IP offices of your country, and find conditions and administrative procedures to apply for your IPR.

Austria

Federal Ministry of Justice

Industrial Property Offices: The Austrian Patent Office

Federal Ministry for Transport, Innovation and Technology

Belgium

Regional Offices: Benelux Office for Intellectual Property (BOIP)

Industrial Property Offices: Office of Intellectual Property

Directorate General Regulation and Market Organisation (ORPI )

Bulgaria

Copyright Offices: Copyright and Neighbouring Rights Directorate Ministry of Culture

Industrial Property Offices: Patent Office of the Republic of Bulgaria (BPO)

Croatia

Copyright Offices:  State Intellectual Property Office of the Republic of Croatia (SIPO)

Industrial Property Offices: State Intellectual Property Office of the Republic of Croatia (SIPO)

Cyprus

Copyright Offices: Department of Registrar of Companies and Official Receiver Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Tourism

Industrial Property Offices: Department of Registrar of Companies and Official Receiver Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Tourism

Czech Republic

Copyright Offices: Copyright Law Department - Ministry of Culture

Industrial Property Offices:  Industrial Property Office

Denmark

Copyright Offices: Copyright Division - Ministry of Culture

Industrial Property Offices: Danish Patent and Trade mark Office Ministry of Trade and Industry

Estonia

Copyright Offices: Estonian Ministry of Justice

Industrial Property Offices: The Estonian Patent Office

Finland

Copyright Offices: Copyright Council- Ministry of Education

Industrial Property Offices: Finnish Patent and Registration Board

France

Copyright Offices: Office of Literacy and Artistic Property

( Under-Directorate of Legal Affairs/Directorate of General Administration/ Ministry of Culture and Francophone Affairs)

Industrial Property Offices: National Institute of Industrial Property (INPI)

Germany

Copyright Offices: Unit Copyright and Publishing Law  (Directorate IIIB / Directorate-General III: Commercial and Economic Law / Federal Ministry of Justice)

Industrial Property Offices: German Patent and Trade Mark Office (DPMA)

Greece

Copyright Offices: Hellenic Copyright Organization - Ministry of Culture

Industrial Property Offices:

Patent Office Industrial Property Organization (OBI)

Trade mark Office - Directorate of Commercial and Industrial Property

General Secretary for Commerce: Kaningos Square, P.C. 101 81, Athens

Hungary

Copyright Offices:  Hungarian Intellectual Property Office (HIPO) - Copyright Department

Industrial Property Offices: Hungarian Intellectual Property Office (HIPO)

Ireland

Copyright Offices: Intellectual Property Unit - Department of Jobs, Enterprise & Innovation

Industrial Property Offices: Patents Office - Department of Jobs, Enterprise & Innovation

Italy

Copyright Offices: Service III - Copyright and supervision over S.I.A.E. (General Direction for Library Heritage, Cultural Institutes and Copyright/ Ministry for Cultural Heritage and Activities)

Industrial Property Offices: Italian Patent and Trade mark Office ( Directorate General of Combating Counterfeiting/ Ministry of Economic Development (UIBM))

Latvia

Copyright Offices: Copyright Unit - Ministry of Culture

Industrial Property Offices: Patent Office of the Republic of Latvia

Lithuania

Copyright Offices: Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Lithuania,

Copyright Division, J. Basanaviciaus Street 5, Vilnius 2600, (3705 2) 61 94 86

Industrial Property Offices: State Patent Bureau of the Republic of Lithuania

Luxembourg

Copyright Offices:  Ministère de l'économie et du Commerce extérieur, Direction de la propriété intellectuelle

Industrial Property Offices: Ministère de l'économie et du Commerce extérieur, Direction de la propriété intellectuelle

Regional Offices : Benelux Office for Intellectual Property (BOIP)

Malta

Copyright Offices: The National IP Office of Malta (Commerce Department/ Ministry for Fair Competition, Small Business and Consumers)

Industrial Property Offices: The National IP Office of Malta (Commerce Department/ Ministry for Fair Competition, Small Business and Consumers)

Netherlands

Copyright Offices: Ministry of Justice - Directorate of Legislation

Industrial Property Offices: Netherlands Patent Office (Netherlands Enterprise Agency/ Ministry of Economic Affairs)

Regional Offices: Benelux Office for Intellectual Property (BOIP)

Poland

Copyright Offices:  The Intellectual Property and Media Department (Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, Legal Office)

Industrial Property Offices: Polish Patent Office

Portugal

Copyright Offices: Bureau for Cultural Strategy, Planning and Assessment (GEPAC)

Rua Dom Francisco Manuel de Melo, 15, 1070-085 Lisbon, Portugal, 384 84 00

Industrial Property Offices: Portuguese Institute of Industrial Property - Ministry of Justice

Romania

Copyright Offices: Romanian Copyright Office (ORDA)

Industrial Property Offices: State Office for Inventions and Trade marks

Slovakia

Copyright Offices: Media, Audiovisual and Copyright Department, Ministry of Culture

Industrial Property Offices: Industrial Property Office of the Slovak Republic

Slovenia

Copyright Offices: Slovenian Intellectual Property Office (SIPO) - Ministry of Economic Development and Technology

Industrial Property Offices: Slovenian Intellectual Property Office (SIPO) - Ministry of Economic Development and Technology

Spain

Copyright Offices: Ministry of Education, Culture and Sports ( Directorate General of Cultural Industries, Policies and Books, Deputy Directorate General for Intellectual Property)

Industrial Property Offices: Ministry of Industry, Energy and Tourism - Spanish Patent and Trade mark Office

Sweden

Copyright Offices: Division of Intellectual Property and Transport Law - Ministry of Justice

Industrial Property Offices: Swedish Patent and Registration Office (SPRO)

United Kingdom

Copyright Offices: Intellectual Property Office - Information Centre

Industrial Property Offices: Intellectual Property Office - Information Centre

Sources of information

Select the appropriate protection for you IP

•    European IPR Helpdesk, Get your ticket to innovation
•    Your Europe (n/a), Intellectual property rights
•    Lien Verbauwhede (2004), WIPO, Intellectual Property and E-commerce: How to take care of your Business’ website, available at http://www.wipo.int/export/sites/www/sme/en/documents/pdf/business_website.pdf
•    Out-Law.com (2008), Intellectual property in websites: ownership and protection, available at http://www.out-law.com/page-381
•    WIPO (2014), National Intellectual Property offices, available at http://www.wipo.int/members/en/

Protect your IP across EU

•    European Commission (2014), Patents (FAQs)
•    European Commission (2013), Modernisation of the European Trade Mark System – Frequently Asked Questions
•    Northwestern Journal of Technology and Intellectual Property (2003), The Community Design: European Union-Wide Protection for Your Design Portfolio, Volume 1, Art. 2, PDF Document
•    Your Europe (n/a), Intellectual property rights

Clarify your ownership rights

•    International Trade mark association, A guide to a proper trade mark use
•    Lien Verbauwhede (2004), WIPO, Intellectual Property and E-commerce: How to take care of your Business’ website, available at http://www.wipo.int/export/sites/www/sme/en/documents/pdf/business_website.pdf
•    Out-Law.com (2008), Intellectual property in websites: ownership and protection, available at http://www.out-law.com/page-381

Be aware when using third party materials

•    European Commission (2014), Copyright and Neighbouring Rights
•    International Trade mark association, A guide to a proper trade mark use
•    “Plagiarism and Copyright—What Are the Differences? (The Council Chronicle, Nov. 05)”, available at  http://www.ncte.org/magazine/archives/122872
•    WikiHow (2009), “How to Avoid Copyright Infringement”, available at http://www.wikihow.com/Avoid-Copyright-Infringement
•    RIAA, “What is Online Piracy”, available at https://www.riaa.com/physicalpiracy.php?content_selector=What-is-Online-Piracy