How do I protect an idea

Protecting an idea without a patent: How to protect your intellectual property


Why protect ideas?

Thoughts are free - and the legislature sees it as well. For this reason, a purely intellectual concept or a discovery without form or formulation cannot be protected. That said, you can only save your business ideas from a copy if the thought is made tangible in some way: a melody, a sketch, a source code, and a chemical formula are all examples of a protectable idea.

Idea theft - A common nuisance

Anyone who underestimates the value of their ideas can quickly fall into a trap: someone else steals a fresh concept and presents it as their own. Many consider reaping the laurels of others as a minor offense, but if the idea thief enriches himself with the help of a strange idea, the tolerance limit has been reached. In the creative industries in particular, theft of ideas is a widespread phenomenon.

Protection of ideas and theft of ideas: Acting and reacting correctly

Some basic precautions will help you protect your intellectual property. In addition, you should devise a plan in case you do become a victim of theft and need to act quickly.

  1. DocumentYour work precisely - with the help of trustworthy work colleagues who act as witnesses. In case of doubt, you can prove that the original came from you. Get used to a routine in which you record work steps and pass them on.
  2. To back up You multiple times. Password protection, additional pairs of eyes and contract content offer more protection than trust between colleagues or a handshake. Before you present your ideas to a large audience, confidentiality agreements serve as an additional safeguard.
  3. Confront The thief. If your ideas have been stolen, only step forward will help. In some cases, open conflict and the risk of public exposure make many backward. Explain factually that you can prove the theft and the possible consequences.
  4. Accept You small losses. Are you expressing a great idea in a meeting and a week later your colleague is selling it to the executive floor as his own creative achievement? Such audacity is a great nuisance, but very difficult to prevent. Always weigh up whether reporting the stolen ideas would have any positive consequences for you. Not everything can be verifiably documented as your own work and not every thief can be caught. Use this experience to take preventive action in the future.


NDA - the first protective screen for your ideas

In the conception phase, ideas are particularly susceptible to the nose of imitators and imitators. So what can entrepreneurs do if the time has not yet come to apply for a patent or trademark? In general: trust is good, a watertight contract is better. You can, for example, make provisions with a non-disclosure agreement. In the German-speaking area, the legal document is also called a confidentiality agreement, confidentiality or nondisclosure agreement. Basically, the contract contains agreements and conditions on the confidentiality of sensitive information, negotiations and trade secrets.

NDAs are particularly suitable for external contract partners, customers, consultants and press contacts. The confidentiality agreement usually defines the information to be kept secret; the contracting parties and the duration of the confidentiality are specified. Any contractual penalties must also be regulated in the NDA.

When is an NDA appropriate?

In the German corporate culture, confidentiality agreements are less common than in the USA, for example. Many therefore shy away from demanding a confidentiality agreement, because it is a double-edged sword: On the one hand, such a contract implies a certain amount of mistrust. On the other hand, an NDA underlines the seriousness of the content and shows that it has financial value. If you are unsure how to act, advice from a lawyer will help.

How can I protect my idea?

An idea alone cannot be patented. Patent applications are only possible for (technical) inventions that are commercially applicable: These include chemical substances, pharmaceuticals, food and innovations in the field of technology. If your idea does not fit into one of these categories, there are still several options for protecting your intellectual property without a patent in Germany and / or in the European Union.

Protect an idea without a patent: all options at a glance

Kind of idea Protect idea as Term of protection Legal basis
  • Product designs
  • Logos and symbols
  • Fonts
  • Product packaging
  • drawings
  • cards
  • Ornaments
  • Web design
  • Registered design (formerly registered design)
  • Community design (EU-wide)
a maximum of 25 years
  • Design Act (DesignG), formerly GeschmMG
  • Community design regulation (GemGeschMVO)
  • new technical inventions
  • small, everyday inventions with commercial application
Utility model three years, extension possible up to a maximum of ten years
  • Utility Model Act (GebrMG)
  • Utility Model Ordinance (GebrMV)
  • Designations
  • Designs, graphics, logos
  • Colours
  • Smells
  • Melodies / sounds
  • Placements
  • Tracer
  • brand
  • EU trade mark (EU-wide)
ten years, unlimited extension possible Trademark Law (MarkenG)
Works of "high art"
  • art
  • literature
  • science
  • music
  • Computer programs
copyrightLifelong protection, copyright expires 70 years after the author's death Copyright Act (UrhG)
Work title
  • Book title
  • Movie title
    Music track
  • Games
  • Radio


Title protectionFor an unlimited period of time as long as the work is manufactured or availableTrademark Law (MarkenG)

Registered design: the protection for elegant ideas

A registered design (previously also a registered design) is an industrial property right. It is often referred to as the minor copyright. Registered designs are particularly suitable for creative concepts and designs because they protect the aesthetic factors of an idea:

  • Manifestation or parts thereof
  • Peculiarity of the features
    • Lines
    • Contours
    • Colours
    • shape
    • structure
    • Materials
    • Ornaments

Read more about Design protection in Germanyand the EU-wide protection as a community design.


Utility model - the small patent

As an alternative to a patent application, technical ideas from everyday life can be protected as utility models. The utility model is also an industrial property right and is often referred to as a small patent ”. The application of a utility model differs from the patent application in a few key points:

1. The protection period is initially three years and can then be extended by seven years. After that, the protection expires.
2. Unlike the patent, the German Patent and Trademark Office (DPMA) Not checks whether your idea meets all protection requirements.
3. The registration process is shorter due to less stringent tests. Due to the lower entry barriers, the risk of deletion proceedings by third parties increases if there are collisions.

Here you can find more information about the registration and the protection requirements of a utility model.

Double registration as a patent - protecting your idea with foresight

The protection of the utility model expires after ten years at the latest. After that, the usage rights are freely available again. Therefore, in some cases it makes sense to consider filing a patent application in the future in order to continue to benefit from the protection of patent law.

Utility models are often chosen as a solution to bridge the gap between the patent application and the actual patent grant. The reason is simple: the examination process for new patents can take several months or even years. During this period, your ideas will remain unprotected if there is no other protection. One possible solution is to register twice as a patent and utility model. If you would like to use this method for your idea, you can choose a so-called branch when applying for a patent. So you have the certainty that no one can beat you and claim the industrial property rights for your invention. The term of protection for patents is 20 years.Read more about patent applications.


Trademark registration - various protection options

Ideas can also be protected as a trademark. In general, brands are used to identify services and goods. Commercial use is also one of the prerequisites for trademark protection. A registered trademark guarantees the trademark owner the sole right to use the protected trademark. For the first time, the term of protection is ten years, but can be extended again and again. This gives the brand owner an eternal right to the brand, if desired. Whichever shape you choose when registering a trademark decision depends entirely on the nature of the idea. German law distinguishes between these types of trademarks:

  • Word marks
  • Figurative marks
  • Word / figurative marks
  • Position marks
  • Tactile marks
  • Tracer marks
  • Three-dimensional marks
  • Odor marks
  • Sound marks

Most common will be Word marks, Figurative marksand the combination of both elements registered as a word / figurative mark Advertising slogans, product names and logos can thus be protected from imitators. Before applying for a trademark, you should do a thorough research. On the one hand, you guarantee that your trademark does not violate any obstacles to protection and you exclude the violation of third-party rights. Both scenarios lead to a rejection of the registration or a cancellation procedure.

Limits of trademark protection

Your dream brand cannot be protected for all conceivable product categories, but must be assigned to specific categories for services and goods. All trademark registrations are divided into so-called Nice classes. The standard registration at the DPMA contains three so-called trademark classes.

If you also want to protect your trademark throughout the EU, this is the Application for an EU trade mark suitable. However, the standard protection only includes one brand class.

Make life difficult for idea thieves. Trademark registrations with expert advice.
Register your trademark in Germany now!
Have trademark rights protected across the EU!

Copyright protection - great ideas enjoy special protection

The strongest protection that ideas can have is copyright. The creator of creation - ideally or materially - has the absolute right to the protection of their intellectual property. The word copyright is often used colloquially, although it is only used legally in the USA.

The work is always at the center of copyright protection. In German law, this umbrella term includes creative achievements in literature, art, music and scientific disciplines. This list is often referred to as the “high art”. The copyright law regulates the content, scope and transferability of the subject matter.

German copyright law is valid for a lifetime. If the author dies, the heirs or legal successors have the right to the work for another 70 years.

  • Examples of typical works that copyright protects:
  • Speeches and writings
  • Songs and compositions
  • Dances and choreographies
  • Drawings, paintings and photographs
  • Film and sound recordings
  • Buildings and designs
  • Computer programs
  • Plans, maps, sketches and tables
  • Translations
  • Web designs
  • Collected works and databases

The law on copyright and related rights also regulates the exploitation rights of creative works. This means distribution, duplication and making available to the public. Especially in the age of social media, your works can be copied and distributed within a few seconds. Films, photographs and drawings are particularly often affected by illegal uses. It is all the more important to know the rights to your work and to monitor violations.

Secure copyrights

Copyrights do not have to be registered or registered, because they exist from the moment of creation or publication. However, the documentation of the creative process will help you in the event of a legal dispute.

A proven way to prove your authorship is to get a priority statement from the notary. The authorship of the work is recorded and deposited through a notarial certification. The declaration of the notary is kept for up to 80 years. In this way, you can use the declaration of priority to prove at any time that you are the author. On the other hand, self-directed documentation is often only the beginning when a copyright infringement occurs. Find out more about securing your copyrights in Germany and abroad.


Title protection - the protection for the name of your works

It is often forgotten that although works are protected by copyright in their entirety, their titles do not enjoy the same protection. The reason is simple: titles alone often do not have the necessary distinctive character. Imagine composing music for a podcast and naming the title track “Don’t leave me”. Now the composition and melody of the song are protected by copyright, but the song title is too generic to be considered part of the creative process. So if you want to protect the work title additionally, you need title protection. You can find out more about applying for title protection here.


Strategic planning pays off

The different ways to protect an idea all assume one thing: You recognize the creative and financial value of your ideas. Do not miss the time to document your work and secure the property rights. If you are unsure whether your ideas are “protectable”, specialist lawyers will help you with an initial consultation. This often small investment pays off if you can prevent the illegal use of your ideas by imitators and thieves.


The information published on our site is all written and checked by experts with the greatest care. However, we cannot guarantee the correctness, as laws and regulations are subject to constant change. Therefore, always consult a technical expert in a specific case - we will be happy to put you in touch. assumes no liability for damage caused by errors in the texts.