Tag Archives: business ideas

Does Copyright Protect Ideas?

I attended a talk recently which was advocating book writing as a way to promote ones personal brand.  Then the speaker said:  “Some people are reluctant to write about their area of expertise because they fear they might be giving away too much information.  However, they have no need to fear this because they have copyright….”

I thought if someone who has spent a lifetime working in publishing can make this basic mistake about copyright ( a mistake I notice others commonly making – even paralegals who come out of law college with distinctions in their final solicitors exams) then it’s worth my writing a short blog post about it.

The notion that by writing down your idea for a product or a business or a way of doing something you can stop others copying the idea is very widespread. But you do not get any protection at all over the end product – that is the idea – when you write it all down on paper.

We see this mistaken notion in action all too often.  Sometimes, people want to know how to protect their idea for a book, or a TV format before they discuss it with a publisher or broadcaster.  Other times, they wonder whether they can stop others drawing inspiration from their idea for something like a piece of software or a building. Often people want to deposit evidence of their patent idea with us thinking that if they write it all down and officially file it with us they will have the equivalent of a patent monopoly over the product.

This view that copyright protects ideas underlies a lot of the confusion that exists about how copyright law works. Another common mistake is to assume that if you contribute ideas to someone who produces a work, you have some rights over the resulting work.  That is not so.  You only get rights if your contribution is concrete and in tangible form.

So, copyright in your written work does not protect the idea as such – it merely protects the way in which the idea is expressed (your choice of words).

The principal way to get protection for your ideas is to use a confidentiality agreement or letter.  However, people should not get a false sense of security from the use of confidentiality undertakings.  The best protection is to be careful who you show confidential information to in the first place.

To recap:  copyright comes into being when an idea is fixed in a tangible way.  So if you have written out your idea, you will have copyright in that piece of writing.  However, this does not give you rights over the information the writing conveys.

Facebook Dispute

Aaron Greenspan’s continuing dispute with Facebook owner, Mark Zuckerberg has taken the form of a petition to cancel Facebook’s trademark registration in the USA mentioned here. The origins of the dispute lay in Greenspan ’s claims to have had the original idea for the social networking company.

Two interesting points arise from this – firstly how the question whether a trade mark is too descriptive can differ based on culture and language. While in the USA ‘Facebook’ is apparently a generic term for the kind of photo directory that many schools have published annually for years – see here. In the UK the word has no such meaning, so that the trade mark FACEBOOK is distinctive.

The other point of interest is the way in which people want to claim ownership of an idea – as if it is the idea which is responsible for the success that is achieved with it. Anyone who has been in business knows that it is how you implement an idea that determines whether it succeeds or not. But if you do think yours is a brilliant idea then the only way to protect it is to keep it to yourself, and only disclose it to someone else if you trust them, and have a good, properly drafted confidentiality agreement in place. The agreement does need to be tailored to the situation in hand if it is to have any value whatsoever.