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What is intellectual property and how should you protect it?

What is intellectual property and how should you protect it?

Published: 04 Nov 2020

What is intellectual property and how should you protect it?

What is intellectual property and how should you protect it?

Published: 04 Nov 2020

Intellectual property (IP) is the property of your mind.  It is the productive new ideas you create.  It can be your branding, an invention, your original creative work or a design.  It must be original.  It must be new and, in some instances, innovative.  

You cannot protect an “idea”, but you can protect the application of your idea. 

Your IP is a valuable asset and often you have spent good time, energy and money coming up with it.  Some IP is actually referred to, in legal terms, as “the sweat of the brow”, so it’s worth protecting.

But what do you need to formally protect?  And how do you go about it? 

Let’s look at the four main types of IP:


This is essentially your branding.  The name of your business immediately comes to mind.  However, there are likely to be other things, like your logo or a tagline (which may be a phrase you use as branding).  You may also have named particular goods or named particular services which you use as branding to attract, and promote your, business.  

You can formally protect any words, numbers, letters, phrases, shape, colour or aspect of packaging which identify your goods or services from those of another trader.


If you do not have a registered trade mark you may display the ™ symbol alongside your branding.  Once you have a registered trade mark you are entitled to display the ® alongside your branding.

To best protect your trade marks and to be able to enforce your trade mark rights under the provisions of the Trade Marks Act 1995 you must register your trade mark with IP Australia.  

This can be done on the IP Australia website, but, a word of advice, it’s important to get it right as, once your application is submitted, it is only possible to reduce the scope of the trade mark (not increase).  There are 45 classes of goods and services.  You must select the correct specifications which reflect your core business activities or select an accurate reflection of your individual goods or individual services.  You must then ensure the specifications are placed in the correct class.  If you do not make appropriate selections, then you run the risk that your mark will be removed from the Trade Marks Register for “non-use” or that you are not protected the way you envisaged.  Competitors can exploit these gaps.

Once registered you have the exclusive right to use, sell or licence your trade mark in Australia.  Registered trade marks last for 10 years and can be renewed over and over into eternity.

Find out more details about trade marks and trade mark protection in our Ultimate Trade Marks Guide


This broadly protects your creative works.  For example, written works, artistic works, dramatic works, musical works, film, broadcasts and computer programs. 

As soon as you document your idea or creative concept, it is automatically protected by the provisions of the Copyright Act 1968.  In essence, “documentation” can be on paper or in electronic form.  

When you own copyright material, you have the exclusive control of the use of the creative work.  That right can last for a long time.  Copyright in artistic works lasts 70 years from the date of first publication, 50 years for radio and television broadcasts and 25 years for published editions.


There is no system of registration for copyright protection in Australia so there is no need to “register” it as such. However, it is best practice to place a label or symbol on your work to indicate your copyright in the materials.  The © symbol next to a simple statement that you are claiming copyright in the materials is enough.


Designs protect the visual appearance of new and distinctive products.  They protect the physical appearance of a product, but not the way it works. The features protected are broadly shape, configuration, pattern, ornamentation and colour.  

Design rights protect the whole product.  The product must have a physical and tangible form, must be manufactured or handmade and must be produced on a commercial scale.

The important tip in relation to designs is not to “publish” it before you have applied to have it protected through IP Australia.  So, keep it a secret or it will be much more difficult to enforce your rights.

Registration and Certification

Yes, there are two steps to protection for designs.

Firstly, you must apply to register your design.  Registration provides you with the exclusive right to sell, use (and authorise others to use) your design.  

Secondly, you may wish to apply to have your design certified.  IP Australia will then examine your design.  If it passes examination, it will be certified.  Once certified you have the same rights as registration plus the legal right to enforce your design against an infringer.

Once registered it will last for 5 years and you may renew it for a further 5 years.


Patents protect your inventions.  They protect how an invention works or functions.  You cannot patent your idea.  Indeed, a patent is a right granted by registration with IP Australia for any method, process, device or substance.  Patents must be new, have an inventive step and be useful.

There are two types of patent.  A standard patent and an innovation patent.

A standard patent must have an inventive step.  This means that it is not obvious for someone in the relevant field to invent.  It also must differ from technology which already exists.  Once registered it has a life of 20 years.

A innovation patent must have an innovative step.  This means that your invention must be different to technology that already exists, but that difference may simply be a further development.  Once registered it has a life of 8 years.  However, these patents are ceasing and the deadline to file one will be 25 August 2021.

Registration and Certification

Once your patent application has been filed it will then be looked at by IP Australia to determine whether it meets with the relevant criteria.  It will then be ‘granted’.  Be aware, however, that an innovation patent cannot be enforced unless it has been examined. 

The next step is examination.  This must be done for a standard patent but is optional for an innovation patent.  Then if the innovation patent passes the IP Australia tests it will be ‘certified’.  Standard patents do not require this certification.

As you can see, none of this is simple.  Dive deeper into how you can protect your brand with our Ultimate Trade Marks Guide or watch our Trade Mark Tips for Success webcast

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