I'm sure that most of you who run your own business have at some point had a unique idea and were so excited about it you just wanted to tell everyone. But how many of you have then found that someone else has ripped off your idea?
Unfortunetly it seems to happen more and more, particularily with the internet, once you put your products/designs/ideas online anyone can access them and copy them. I've been burnt once myself and have spoken to many others who have had the same thing.
On some of the arts/crafts forums I've used there have been many people who have had their designs copied, even photos stolen from their website and in one shocking situation someone had bought stock from them and then was re-selling it as their own through their website.
So what can you do to stop it?
Firstly please be very careful who you discuss your ideas with, as exciting as it is when you come up with a great new idea the more people you tell the more people can copy it, or get there before you. Those you do have to show or tell, don't give them everything. Don't tell them how you will be doing it and every little aspect of what you are doing. Keep it broad and brief and don't give too much away. When doing market research try to be as vague as you can whilst still getting the information you require. For instance I conducted a giveaway on my mum's blog asking where would people look to find their local dressmaker - rather than asking people if they thought a sewing directory was a good idea.
Create a good recognisable logo so people know when they see the logo it is your product, and not a copy.
There's many places online where you can find and purchase available domain names, the one I use is here. It's adviseable to buy the .com and .co.uk to prevent competitors from setting up with a really similar domain to yours. If there's any other similar domains you may want to get them too, for instance I bought http://www.sewingdirectory.co.uk/ as well as http://www.thesewingdirectory.co.uk/ and http://www.thesewingdirectory.com/ and pointed them all to my site. It generally costs less than £10 per domain for 2 years so it's well worth the cost. I'd advise trying to use a domain that has both the .com and .co.uk available to avoid confusion. For instance anyone who uses the New Of The World website (http://www.notw.co.uk/) may have made the same mistake I have many times and typed in .com instead and ended up on a Christian Clothing site - not quite the celebrity gossip fix I was looking for!
You can register the company name without trading as a registered company and having to submit annual accounts. You can register it as a dormant company, whilst you trade as a soletrader, but it stops anyone else from registering it. It costs about £40 and details/forms can be found on companies house (http://www.companieshouse.co.uk/)
Trademarking is also not as expensive or difficult as you would imagine. I recently helped my mum trademark her company name (Make Do and Mend - amazingly no-one had trademarked it!). When you first start to look into it you come accross loads of companies and solicitors offering to register your trademark for you from £500 plus just for one class. However, if you visit the Intellectual Property Office's website http://www.ipo.gov.uk/types/tm/t-os.htm you can register it yourself using 1 simple form and it costs £200 for one class and £50 for each additional class.
Through the site you can search the exisiting database to make sure no one has already trademarked your company name, you can get information on what class(es) to register your trademark under and help in completing your form. There is also a contact number you can use if you need any additional help. If you make any mistakes they do let you know and give you the option to change the class if they think another class is more relevant. Once done the trademark if yours for 10 years so its well worth the money. Particularily if you are using a name that you are worried someone else may use. It took about 5 months from start to finish of the process but well worth doing.
The Intellectual Property Website also has plenty of information on how to patent an invention you have created, although patents can't be applied to 'artistic work' so that probably rules out most the people who read this blog! They also have advice on Copyrights, which do apply to the content of your website and blog etc and your photos.
The IPO website also has information on Design Protection as per their definition:
'A registered design is a legal right which protects the overall visual appearance of a product in the geographical area you register it. The visual features that form the design include such things as the lines, contours, colours, shape, texture, materials and the ornamentation of the product which, when applied to the product, give it a unique appearance. You can also register a design showing the ornamentation alone e.g. a pattern to go on a product or a stylised logo.'
It costs £60 to register your design, if you register multiple designs each additional design costs £40. The design will be registered for 5 years. If you have several designs to protect then joining ACID (Anti Copying In Design) may prove to be more economic. Their annual memebership starts at £125 per year for companies with a turnover of less than £50,000 and includes free legal advice and a free design data bank which provides independant evidential proof of the creation date of your designs. More details can be found on their site - http://acid.eu.com/.
You may want to consider intellectual property insurance so if someone does breach your copyright/trademak or patent you will have cover for the legal costs involved in protecting your rights. More information can be found here: http://www.intellectualpropertyinsurance.co.uk/. However as with all insurance make sure you read the small print, particularily the exclusions!
If you are worried about people using your images without permission you can use this free software to watermerk your images - Jet Photo.
If you make products try to put your name/company name/logo somewhere on the product where it will be difficult to remove, to prevent others from passing it off as their own. If you have designed something, bear in mind if you put a tutorial on your blog/facebook/forum etc telling people how it was made people are likely to make it and possibly try to sell it.
Another thing to do is a regularily google the keywords for your site/products and keep and eye on what competitors are doing so you can see if they are ripping off your ideas. Once way to do this is to set up Google alerts for your keywords and you will get an e-mail once a day notifying you of any usage of those words. Obviously this would work well if you make something unique - purple stuffed frogs for instance - but not so well if you make something common like beaded jewellery.
Another good idea is to keep a check on the visitors to your site (Google analytics is a good way of doing this) as one person said they realised through their web stats that someone from had spent several hours on their site, going through every single page, they were in fact downloading their pictures to use on their own site!
There's also a very useful article on The Next Web website gibing you 5 ways to proect your work online. Well worth a read: http://thenextweb.com/apps/2011/09/09/5-ways-to-protect-your-work-online/
If anyone else has any hints and tips on protecting your ideas, or any useful links, please post a comment below.