A common issue faced by startup businesses is knowing when to invest money in intellectual property (IP) protection. Each type of IP has its own benefits, so it is important to know the various types and how they may apply to your business. For the long-term success of your business, you should take steps to protect your IP early on to prevent others from using your valuable IP assets.

This article will outline some of the key issues to consider when exploring IP protection. It will also discuss some preliminary steps you can take to help determine whether your IP can be protected and therefore reduce the risk of over-investing too soon.

Before Going to Market

Ideally, you should consider protecting your IP before launching your business. This is because once your product or service is in the public domain, the risk of others using your IP rises. Generally, it is much easier to enforce your IP against infringers if it is registered and protected. The last thing you want is someone else stealing or copying your IP after having invested time and money into your business launch. Protecting your IP early on can also help you with:

  • deterring competitors from copying your IP;
  • establishing a competitive advantage; and
  • attracting investment for your business.

Despite the obvious benefits of protecting your IP before going to market, it is not practical for many startup businesses due to the costs involved with IP registration. If money and resources are limited, then it may make sense to 'test' your business model before investing in your IP. If you decide to launch your business before registering your IP, there are some key legal issues you should consider as explained below.

After Going to Market

It is possible to register your IP after launching your business, or at any time during your business lifecycle. However, registering your IP at a later stage can make it more difficult and costly to protect and enforce your IP against infringers in the long run.

In addition, some forms of IP are more time sensitive than others. The timing considerations associated with the three most common types of IP registered in Australia are set out below.


A patent protects a new invention. Generally, once you have publicly disclosed your invention:

  • it may no longer be eligible for patent protection; or
  • you may need to rely on grace periods.

Therefore, if you have created a product or service that is new and inventive, you must keep this confidential until you have applied for patent protection.

If you need to discuss your invention with others, such as a manufacturer, use a non-disclosure agreement to prevent them from revealing your invention and other confidential information without your permission.

You may also consider filing a provisional patent application before launching your invention. This is often the first step for many businesses. Once you file a provisional patent application, you will be given a priority date. This is the date from which your application is given preference over subsequent inventions.

A provisional patent application is only valid for 12 months. However, it can act as a placeholder for your full patent application and allow you to disclose and use your invention in the meantime.


A design protects the visual appearance of a product that is distinctive and unique. Similar to patents, you must register and protect a design before you go to market and start advertising your product.

This is because once your design is disclosed and in the public domain, it is no longer considered distinctive and therefore cannot be registered. There are no grace periods for designs.

Trade Marks

A trade mark protects elements of your brand, such as your business name and logo. You can apply for a trade mark at any time and there is no time limit. However, it is recommended to apply early on to secure your priority date and reduce the risk of someone applying for a similar trade mark before you.

When Should I Protect My IP?

There is no right or wrong answer as to when you should seek protection for your IP. The benefits and risks associated with obtaining IP protection before and after going to market will vary for each business and depend on various factors.

In addition, some forms of IP will be more valuable to your business than others. While most businesses will own copyright and have trade mark protection to some degree, not every business will need a patent. Therefore, it is important to understand the benefits of each different type of IP and prioritise them according to which protections will maximise the value and success of your business.

What Can I Protect?

Each form of IP has its own eligibility requirements. Before investing money in registering your IP, you should understand whether you are likely to qualify for registration by seeking advice from a legal professional.

You can also perform your own preliminary searches and investigation to help assess the registrability of your IP and any potential risks. This is especially important during the ideation stage of your business.

For example, you may find a registered trade mark that is identical to yours right away and avoid the time and cost involved with lodging a formal application.

The table below outlines some of the free databases you can use to search for any existing IP registrations similar to yours.

Official search systems Other search systems

Australian patent database

Overseas patent search

  • Google search

Australian design search

Global design database

Trade Mark

Australian trade mark search

Global brand database

  • Google search
  • Australian Securities and Investment Commission for company names
  • Australian Business Register for business names
  • Domain name search
  • Social media search (e.g. Facebook and Instagram)

Doing your own investigation can help reveal any red flags before registering your IP. However, it is best to seek advice from a legal professional who can assist with performing detailed searches and provide a formal assessment.