Can you copyright an idea or concept?

If you’ve got what you think could be a lucrative plan, can you copyright this, even if nothing has come to fruition yet?

Can you copyright an idea or concept?

These days, it seems like we're surrounded by highly creative, innovative types of people with the next greatest product, service or artwork ideas. With shows like "Shark Tank" and "Dragons' Den" and their many iterations across the globe, there are plenty of opportunities for people to share their thoughts and become very successful.

However, these entrepreneurial individuals should want to protect their ideas. If others get wind of these concepts, they might want to piggyback on them, adopt them as their own and eventually start making money off of someone else's initial plans.

So, if you've got what you think could be a lucrative plan, can you copyright this, even if nothing has come to fruition yet? If so, what do you need to know to get this process started?

Copyrighting an idea

In short, it is not technically possible to protect an idea.

There are some caveats, however. With that said, copyright generally covers how an idea is expressed rather than the actual idea itself, be it through music, the written word, film or another medium. The protection lies in the form of the expression, not the idea itself – if the idea has progressed and been made into a good, it can be protected by default. Other elements that are not strictly covered by copyright law, as-is, include teaching techniques, facts, information, systems and techniques.

Ways the idea can be expressed, and thereby covered by an automatic copyright, include (but are not limited to):

  • In writing
  • As a table or chart
  • As a drawing or other form or artwork
  • As a computer program
  • On film

There are no guidelines on what the original idea has to be about, it doesn't have to revolve around art, and there is no quality standard that must be met – it just cannot be the same as an idea that is already copyrighted. 

Copyrighting is free and automatic in Australia thanks to the Copyright Act 1968, but it can be a useful protection to officially declare and have in place regardless. This sets timed protections in place for the expression of ideas, and also protects such concepts when they are used or showcased overseas, where copyright might not be implied. 

Look at all your options

In short, while copyrighting the expression of an idea is possible, it might be more appropriate and provide better cover to take out a trade mark for an idea or concept. This way, you can better ensure the scope of your plans is protected.

While patent protections are also possible, particularly if your ideas or concepts are for specific products, copyright and trade mark protections tend to last longer. Also, if the idea is for a function article, it might be able to be registered under the Designs Act, and one for an invention or method of manufacturing could fall under the Patents Act. Copyrighting the expression of an idea is a smart move going forward because it can protect your original idea, and that protection lasts for at least 50 years (for radio and television broadcasts), and up to 70 years (for concepts expressed in other mediums), after the original creator's death. 

How to approach a copyright

To reiterate, copyrighting an expression of an idea in Australia is an automatic right once it is put into material form. You do have the right to employ the copyright symbol in the demonstration of how your work is ultimately used, but it is not required to use it. You should speak to legal counsel about your options when it comes to filing documentation to protect a concept that is still just an idea.

In the meantime, however, there are steps that should take before things become permanent. For instance, you should be sure to protect your plans and consider taking out a non-disclosure agreement with those who you've shared your long-term goals with, if you are serious about your intellectual property ideas. 

Discuss your copyright options with a lawyer if you have a worthy idea.Discuss your copyright options with a lawyer if you have a worthy idea

You should also consider doing some of the leg work when it comes to research before you consult with a legal team. For instance, you can access various databases for trade marks, patents, copyrights and other idea repositories to be certain that other individuals haven't taken out any official documentation on similar concepts already. This way, you can ensure that you're not wasting your efforts, time or money when you don't need to.

To discuss your options when it comes to protecting your ideas and concepts, you should get in touch with a lawyer. Filing for a trade mark or copyright can be a complicated process, and it's made much easier with the help of a professional. Make an appointment to speak to a member of our team – contact us today.