Protecting your ideas: An introduction to intellectual property

Discover what intellectual property is, the different types of intellectual property rights and why it’s important to protect your creations.

What is intellectual property? 

If you’ve started a business, or are in the process of doing so, you might wonder if you need to protect your intellectual property (IP), or if you have any. Intellectual property refers to creations of the mind. It could include a brand, logo, invention, design or artistic work, or new plant variety. When you register intellectual property rights, you’re legally protecting your idea(s) and making sure you have the exclusive rights to profit from them.

Beyond offering exclusivity, IP can potentially increase the value of a business too. Valuable IP assets can be commercialised through licensing, transfer or sale.

Types of intellectual property rights

You can register four types of IP rights with IP Australia, the government agency that administers intellectual property rights and legislation — trade marks, patents, design rights and plant breeder's rights.

  • Trade marks: A trade mark protects your unique brand and distinguishes your product or service. Trade marks can be used to protect a logo, phrase, word, letter, colour, sound, smell, picture, movement, aspect of packaging or any combination of these. Registered trade mark owners have exclusive rights for 10 years and registrations can be renewed indefinitely. Try IP Australia’s TM Checker tool which makes it easier for small businesses to check if a trade mark is available.
  • Patents: A patent protects an invention, or how something works. It may be a device, substance, method or process but it must be new, useful and inventive in order to be granted a patent. A standard patent lasts up to 20 years, while a pharmaceutical patent can last up to 25 years.
  • Design rights: Design rights protect the overall appearance of your new and distinctive product for up to 10 years (renew registration at 5 years). The appearance may be a combination of shape, colour, configuration pattern and ornamentation.
  • Plant breeder’s rights: A plant breeder’s right protects new plant varieties. It could be for a new variation of flower, vegetable, fruit, tree or plant. Exclusive use of new varieties of plants lasts for 20–25 years, depending on the plant type.

Not sure what IP you have? Try IP Australia’s Choosing the right IP tool to help you identify what type of IP protection you may need.

What about copyright?

There are other types of IP including copyright, circuit layouts and trade secrets not administered by IP Australia. Copyright protects art, non-commercial designs, music, literature or film. Copyright protection is free and automatic. It protects your original expression of an idea as soon as you document it.

How to protect your IP

As a small business, you can protect your ideas by registering your IP with IP Australia. You may need multiple types of IP rights.

Get started with TM Checker — a free tool to check if a trade mark is available to register in Australia. TM Checker also gives you an indication of cost, timings and how your trade mark can be used. 

Other great tools to protect your IP include non-disclosure agreements and confidentiality clauses in contracts.

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Things you should know

This article is intended to provide general information of an educational nature only. It does not have regard to the financial situation or needs of any reader and must not be relied upon as financial product advice. You should consider seeking financial advice before making any decision based on this information.