Protection of ideas

An idea as such, no matter how original or novel, cannot be protected by an intellectual property right. This is due to the principles of free trade and free circulation of ideas.

However, the expression of an idea which has taken a certain shape, such as literary, musical, artistic, audiovisual, functional, etc. may be protectable. The concrete development of an idea, concept or method may be protected. Protection does not only concern the final shape of a work: an outline, project plan, or draft version could also meet the criteria for the shape of a work.

It is more difficult to determine when an idea is sufficiently concretised in a particular expression to be protected.

For example:

  • The idea of designing a borderless canal is not protected in and of itself, but the blueprints or original sketch of this canal which indicate its design, even a preliminary sketch, may be protected by copyright;
  • A method for teaching children to sing is not protected in and of itself, but the teachers notes or books which concretise this method may be protected by copyright;
  • A television or radio show concept may not be protected as such, but the concrete development of basic ideas for this program or the way in which the program is organised to effectively carry out the concept may be protected by copyright.

Without this concretisation of ideas, they may only be protected through secrecy or contracts.

For example, when presenting an interesting idea or concept to a company, you can use a confidentiality clause in a contract which specifies, in advance, how the data which was shared may be used.

When an idea or concept is re-used or copied, a civil suit may be filed for civil responsibility, unjust enrichment or unfair competition in order to defend an idea. Criminal law and labour law provisions are also applicable.

Protection of business information and know-how

Business information and know-how includes the set of technical, transmissible knowledge which is not immediately accessible to the public and which is not covered by a patent, as well as all other information that is valuable, because it is secret and for which the holder has taken measures to keep it secret. This can involve many different types of information, such as:

  • research data,
  • customer files,
  • strategies,
  • contracts,
  • work processes,
  • software,
  • etc.

This kind of information can be transferred to third persons and it may be of high economic value. It may therefore be important to prevent your competitors from obtaining or using it.

Business information and know-how is not covered by specific legal protections and, as simple ideas, may generally be protected only by secrecy or specific contracts.

One company may transmit its know-how to another, in particular when authorising the use of one of its inventions which requires specific know-how in order to use it. These know-how transfers or communication agreements generally contain confidentiality clauses which prohibit filing a patent request for this know-how and provide for payment for transmission of this know-how.

Confidentiality of data on medicines

Pharmaceutical companies must share a great deal of data on the design of a medicine when requesting authorisation to place the medicine on the market. The law requires authorities in charge of this authorisation to keep this data confidential.

Last update
9 August 2019