In Australia there are three main forms of official protection for computer-related intellectual property (IP):
Each IP right offers a different form of protection:
- A patent protects the way the program makes a computer work.
- Copyright protects the code of a computer program from being copied.
- Circuit layout rights protect the appearance (design and layout) of an electronic circuit.
Patents offer a stronger form of protection for software.
A patent may be granted for an innovative, practical solution to a technological problem.
Patent protection does not apply to a program that is developed to make a computer work in the same way as another program, even if the code is different.
Australian patent law enables a diverse range of software to gain patent protection.
You should consider seeking professional advice on whether your particular software falls within the definition of what may be patented.
Software inventions must be industrially applicable. For example, software that is only a procedure for solving a given type of mathematical problem is not patentable.
Patent protection for hardware
Physical devices that work in an improved way over previously known devices can be patented.
This includes complete computer systems or computer components such as disk drives, memory chips, bus architectures and monitors. Accessories for computers, such as a keyboard with an improved construction, are suitable for patenting.
A disk that has an improved format or layout of data may be patentable if that format results in an improved working of the disk. Improved working could include increasing the amount of data storage, allowing faster access to data or reducing errors.
However a disk that only differs due to the information stored on it cannot be patented.
These examples only cover a small number of computer-related inventions. An IP professional may be able to provide more detailed and specific information about patent protection in this field.
In Australia, the Copyright Act 1968 automatically copyrights source code, executable code and data banks and tables. There is no need for registration in Australia, however:
- not all foreign countries recognise copyright in codes, or data banks or tables
- some foreign countries may require some formalities to be met.
If you wish to ensure overseas copyright in a computer program, or data bank or table, you shouldn’t publish your work until you have consulted with a patent attorney or a legal practitioner.
Copyright only protects the specific code of a computer program. It does not protect the ideas or methods the program employs.
Once a method is known, a competent programmer would be able to write a 'new' program that could perform the same actions without copying the code.
Copyright legislation is administered by the Department of Communications and the Arts.
In Australia, the Circuit Layouts Act 1989 automatically protects the layout of an integrated circuit (IC). The Act defines a circuit layout as the three-dimensional location of active and passive elements and interconnections making up an integrated circuit.
The layout of a circuit is generally not patentable, although the laws vary from country to country. If you want protection for an IC layout overseas, you should consult an IP professional for up-to-date information.
Along with copyright, the Department of Communications and the Arts administers the legislation on circuit layout rights.