Entrepreneurs have always jealously guarded their ideas. Self-righteous rage is usually the response whenever they feel someone has encroached upon their intellectual property.
Legal action isn’t uncommon over “stolen” business ideas, as evidenced by the Winklevoss twins’ long-running legal battle with Mark Zuckerberg over the foundation of Facebook.
Other businesses are unsure as to how to react, as Australian start-up Shoes of Prey explained when a US rival allegedly copied it last year.
With the growth of the internet, the opportunity to steal Aussie ideas, designs and logos has soared. But another factor is set to cause IP headaches for budding entrepreneurs – the explosion in co-working and incubator hubs in Australia.
Even a couple of years ago, the notion that you would choose to work in an open-plan office next to a rival business that was able to hear all of your conversations and, potentially, pilfer your IP would be unthinkable.
But the arrival of co-working spaces such as The Hub and Fishburners, along with hand-picked incubators such as AngelCube, PushStart and York Butter Factory, mean that the undoubted benefits of collaboration and networking come with the potential caveat of someone lifting your ideas.
Sebastien Eckersley-Maslin, who heads tech incubator BlueChilli, admits IP problems can occur – but at co-working spaces rather than organised incubators.
“There is a big difference between the two,” he says. “In a co-working location, there’s a real risk that there will be two competitive businesses in the same space.”
“I know of two businesses in Sydney that work right next to each other and they have been very careful to lock everything down. Conversations in an open plan office can be tricky. An off-hand comment can be picked up by a rival or even a freelance journalist that is working there.”
“It’s not really a problem in incubators, as you wouldn’t normally pick two competing businesses and the focus is on rapport and collaboration.”
“But if you have a serviced office that is more focused on financial gain than the protection of clients, you can have problems. It’s going to become more of an issue as this area grows. A few people will be burned.”
Ehon Chan, of co-working facility The Hub Melbourne, denies that IP is a major issue for the 200-strong members who use the space.
“If people have the same idea, they go off and work on it together,” he says.
“I think entrepreneurs realise that there are always ideas and talent that can help you. We are seeing more start-ups look for co-founders rather than do it themselves – some come here to look for co-founders.”
“I haven’t seen people worried about it here and it’s not really our role to help people protect their IP.”
“If you are having a confidential conversation, I think most entrepreneurs are sensible enough to go to a private area.”
Eckersley-Maslin stresses that the best way to protect an idea is to “get out there and do it quicker and better than anyone else”. It’s a mantra that other leading start-up gurus subscribe to.
“Ultimately there are no truly original ideas, so it is all about the people and teams within a business and how you execute those ideas,” says Kim Heras, who runs mentorship and accelerator network PushStart.