How do I copyright an idea?

You cannot copyright an “idea” in South Africa or elsewhere.

Copyright does not arise when you have the “idea”. You must first reduce that “idea” to a “material form” (e.g. write it down, draw it, record it), and it is that material form (otherwise known as a “work”) that is protected by copyright.

Copyright only prevents others from copying or reproducing the “work” and not the “idea” embodied within the work. To explain:

If I wanted to create a fax directory, I could take the telephone directory, phone all the people in that directory starting at A and ending at Z, and ask them for their fax number. Copyright would prevent others from copying my directory / “work”, but I could not prevent others from re-creating a fax directory following the same steps that I took (i.e. calling everyone in the telephone directory). Even if they end up with a fax directory that is identical to mine, they did not copy my work. And, my “idea” of creating a fax directory cannot be patented.

There is no such thing as copyright registration in South Africa. Copyright arises automatically and is free. It need not be registered. One only adds the “(c)” symbol, “owner’s name” and “date” for evidentiary purposes. In the US, one can register copyright, but again, this is only for evidentiary purposes.

To protect an idea, one must register a patent – see the patent section on this website. But most works that are copyrightable are not patentable, e.g. a musical score, a script for a tv show, a website, an idea for a reality show, software, a Business method (see more examples). The best way to protect these ideas is by way of copyright and confidentiality undertakings. But, remember that confidentiality undertakings are only enforceable for as long as the “confidential information” remains secret. As soon as you air the first episode of your tv show, the general “storyline” behind it seldom remains confidential.

14 thoughts on “How do I copyright an idea?”

  1. lauren says:

    is there a standard wording for copyright notices (SA) ? or is it just the (c) next to my name with the date (as mentioned above) ?

    1. admin says:

      Hi Lauren
      All works are automatically protected by copyright, even if you do not add any copyright notice to it. But, the best is to add the (c) logo, name and date to your work. Nothing else is required.

  2. Matthew says:

    So if I have a business idea I want to protect, how should I go about it? What ‘work’ would be my evidence to protect my idea…?

    1. admin says:

      Hi Matthew
      It is very difficult to protect a business idea – it is not easily protected by patents; is not protected by designs; only its name can be protected by trademarks; and only its documents can be protected by copyright. For instance, if you create a marketing pamphlet. That pamphlet is a “work”. It is protected by copyright. So, no-one can copy it. But, if it discloses a new way of selling a product, your copyright will not prevent me from reading your pamphlet and implementing your new way of selling. Your copyright merely prevents me from making copies of your pamphlet, but leaves me free to create new pamphlets that capture the same essence (provided I do not copy your wording). To summarize: only “thin” (and generally, ineffectual) intellectual property rights protect your business idea, and there is therefore little need for “evidence” to support those rights.

  3. Rima says:

    If you have a business idea and must share it with another person because you need that person working with you, how do you stop that person from starting up his own business like yours that you want to start up?

    1. admin says:

      Rima, the best is to encourage that person to sign a restraint, but restraints should protect a legitimate economic interest. Ensure that it is reasonable as to restraint period, scope of the restraint and territory. Example:

      “XYZ undertakes for a period of [Enter months] from the date of signature of this restraint not to [Enter activities] within [Enter territory]. XYZ acknowledges that this restraint is reasonable as to subject matter, scope and duration, and reasonably required by [Your name] to protect and maintain its business interests and relationships and interest in confidential information.”

  4. Tony Mathe says:


    I have just came up with a brilliant idea that can only work with big corporation in South Africa. I want to protect this idea and I understand there is no way to protect a business idea, can I use memorandumn of understanding or confidentiality form? Can those be used against thos I will present to?

    1. admin says:

      Tony, you can try protect it by way of a confidentiality agreement. However, large corporations are understandably reluctant to sign long term, broad NDAs. Also, when the corporation brings the idea into the market, nothing will stop its competitor from adopting the idea without any payments / contractual obligations to you. Also, ensure that the person who signs the confidentiality is empowered to do so.

  5. Therego says:

    I have a similar dilemma as Tony and in my case I’ve been requested to send through a copy of my work to the company, how do I then ensure that the correct people sign the confidentiality form? Or otherwise make sure that there is some thing protecting my intellectual property as I send the copy?

    1. admin says:

      Hi Therego

      I suggest that you send the company a confidentiality undertaking to sign and return to you before you disclose your information. Also, ask them to send you proof that the signatory has capacity to sign the undertaking (i.e. that he is a director).

  6. Webster says:

    I have few intellegent business ideas that i was even able to identify potential investors but my worry is the are running their own business that are totaly not the same with my business ideas and they do have resources to venture in new business ideas that they may get and i am a bit affraid and skeptical on how am i going to firstly get their approvals if i do not disclose this potential ideas to them, do i have to have my ideas on business plans to start with or business proposal pattern documents before i do the introduction to investors and lastly how do i get a confidentiality form

    1. admin says:

      Hi Webster
      Unfortunately business methods are not easily protected by intellectual property rights. I suggest that you select a suitable template confidentiality undertaking and ask potential investors to whom you wish to disclose your idea(s) to sign it.
      Personally, I would not consider funding anyone who has not done their homework or prepared a business plan – it is not that a business plan is necessary to communicate your idea; it is just that without one I would struggle to take you seriously.
      I wish we could be of more assistance, but there is little else we can do for business method ideas. Wishing you the best.

  7. sillytoad says:

    Hello, I know you’ve been getting asked allot of questions, if you don’t mind could you please help me as well? What I want to know is, I have an idea for a graphic novel/comic, I have not yet written the full story but i have created a few characters, a world, a title and a base for the story. Do I have to have a complete story to copyright it, or can I copyright what i have to a trademark like its title and create/grow the story as i go along?

    1. admin says:

      Hi, copyright protects “works”. As soon as a “work” comes into being, it will be protected by copyright. Your story, once written will be classed as a “literary work”, whereas and drawings will be classed as “artistic works”. Once protected by copyright, someone else would need to copy a “substantial portion” of your “work” to infringe your copyright. It is doubtful whether a document detailing the general idea of a comic book series will be infringed by others writing comics based on a similar idea. Also, names seldom qualify for copyright protection – to protect names / titles, you should file trademarks.

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