People get in contact with me every day about a new idea they have had - they want to see if there is a business to by found in their idea.
I'm sorry if this sounds harsh but I must be honest. Most fantastical ideas have been thought of by now. For every new invention, there are usually lots of previous attempts. Most of them will have failed, and a few will have found success a lot less lucrative than originally anticipated.
Don't think I'm harsh - if you have a new idea, test it out. Not on your friends and family who may not want to hurt your feelings, but head to the next county, find your ideal target market - age demographic/gender/financial background - and really test it out with people you don't know, people who will be honest with you. Sometimes you need to take that scary step - don't worry, if your idea truly is as brilliant and as you believe it is, having an anonymous focus group reinforce your opinion will only be a good thing.
The way to protect your idea before you unleash a crude prototype on people you don't know, is to registered-post the designs to yourself and lock the unopened envelope away in a safe somewhere. If the time comes, a judge will open the envelope in court and go "ahoy ahoy, this idea certainly seems to be yours, good sir/madam..."
Be warned though, an idea or concept cannot be protected by copyright (disclaimer: I am not qualified in law, I just found all this out over time) - it is easier to copyright a design, painting, photograph, poem, song...
When it comes to protecting your Intellectual Property, there are many options open to you. Copyright, doesn't cost a jot. You don't have to buy the rights to use the copyright symbol (c), you just use it as a reminder to anyone checking out your product, that you are the sole owner of the property and you are aware of your rights.
Patents are expensive. There are not a lot of patent lawyers out there so the few that are, are busy and can charge as such. It is a valuable asset, a patent, so you need to be aware that it takes investment of both time and money to properly protect your idea. The thing about patents, is that they are registered in categories and by country. So, that can mean you could register your product in 5 or 6 categories, in the EU only or Ireland only or just in the UK and Ireland or in the EU and the US but not in Australia - you have so many decisions to make when considering patent protection. The best thing is to take some time out and search through the Patents Office website - they have lots of information there about how you can protect your idea.
If you have a service, which doesn't give you the facility to register a design - what can you do? Well, one option is to develop an excellent brand and register that instead - as a trade mark. You know Coca-Cola, the world's most recognisable brand? It doesn't have patent protection. It has registered the trade mark - have a look at the next can of coke you see, it will have a little (R) beside the brand somewhere. The thing about patenting, is that you are writing down your idea, therefore when the patent runs out - and they do - it will be anybody's gain. Coca-Cola have never registered a patent for their magic ingredient, simply because they never want anyone else to know what it is. So think about patenting before you do it - is it the best route to take? Think about the long-term plans and implications for the decisions you make now. Look at McDonalds - their greatest asset is their brand. Best option? Trademark.
Before you go to the expense of organising all your trademark categories for all the countries in which you see your product/service selling, you can use the (TM) after your brand. Properly protecting something means having registered it, which is why Coca-Cola have the (R) not a (TM) here in little old Ireland.
So that's three main options you have when protecting your intellectual property - copyright, trademark, patent.
There are guidelines available here for protecting your idea in Europe.
2 Patent Attorney Firms I have had dealings with - in Dublin and in Wicklow
Patent Office, Ireland - Kilkenny, actually, some lovely helpful people down there!
EU Patents Office
World Intellectual Property Organisation - in Geneva, Switzerland
OHIM - for registering trademarks and designs in all 27 member states