If you have an idea for a product or business, it’s critical to find out if anyone has already “done it” before getting too far along. It would be a shame to spend lots of time and energy developing a product that you thought was original only to discover that it’s been done by someone else. Unfortunately, the law is not straightforward on this issue of determining whether your idea has been copyrighted. It can get quite complex after considering unpublished works and ideas in their various forms, such as trademarks, patents, trade secrets, and publicity rights. If you have an idea yourself, here are five ways to copyright your idea:

  1. Copyright Registration with the Copyright Office
    This is the most common way to copyright an idea. You simply complete a form and send in your written work along with the appropriate filing fee. However, it’s important to remember that you don’t automatically have copyright protection just because you wrote something down — you need to register your work with the Copyright Office. And even if you do register, there are still some things that aren’t protected, such as ideas, titles, and short phrases.
  2. Copyright Notice
    If you want people to know that your work is copyrighted, you can include a notice on all published copies of your work.
  3. Common Law Copyright Protection
    This is protection you get automatically when you create an original, fixed work that embodies a complete item of expression. It’s more common for unpublished works than published ones because publication can erase your protection (without registering).
  4. File a Patent Application
    If your idea is an invention instead of just an idea or writing, then you may be able to apply for a patent. However, patents aren’t very useful for ideas and inventions because they last only 20 years and give other people the right to make and sell the invention — which means they would also have 20 years to do so before your patent expires! This can prevent you from ever creating and commercializing your product. So unless you want everyone else in the world making money off of your hard work (and not paying royalties), steer clear of applying for a patent.
  5. Trademark Your Idea
    If your idea is a name or phrase, you can trademark it. This will give you exclusive rights to use that name or phrase in connection with your product or business. However, it’s not as strong as patent or copyright protection and can be harder to get.

In the end, the best way to protect your copyright your idea is to consult with an intellectual property lawyer who can help you figure out what steps to take and how to enforce your rights if someone else tries to steal them.