They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but it certainly doesn’t feel that way when someone copies your business idea, product or artwork. So what protections do you have available to stop a copycat?

There is nothing that can infuriate a business owner as much as noticing something they have come up with being used by another business – particularly a bigger one. But apart from getting mad, what exactly can you do to prevent copying?

As we explain, it can come down to exactly what was copied and any protections put in place.

Your business idea was copied

There is a theory that there are no new ideas in the world, but sometimes it can be obvious that someone has copied your business, especially if they operate in the same area as you. This could range from copying an element of your business offer (for example, offering the same unique milkshake flavours as your café) to duplicating elements of your branding, copy, package prices or offering a specific service to the same target market as you.

Unfortunately, the more successful your business is, the more tempting it is for people to emulate you. The bad news is, a business model can’t be protected by copyright, and unless an idea is formally protected by a trademark or patent, others are free to use it too.

Small Business Development Corporation Business Adviser, Chris O’Hare, says that while it is important to protect your business where you can, you should not be surprised or annoyed when a competitor copies your ideas, even if your first instinct is to respond emotionally.

“As a business owner it is important to understand that a copycat can attempt to replicate what you are doing, but they don’t have the rich data that came from researching the market, identifying an opportunity, developing and launching a product or service,” says Chris.

“In short, they have no idea why you developed the new idea and how it fits into your business’s strategic plan. Copycats are reactive and will always be behind the market, innovators are curious and will see the next opportunity - so be an innovator!”

Photo of SBDC Business Adviser Chris O'Hare sitting at his desk in the SBDC's office in the Perth CBD.
SBDC Business Adviser Chris O'Hare.

While it can be tempting to threaten to take legal action (in the form of a cease and desist letter or engaging a lawyer), this is often very costly for a small business and unlikely to be successful.

Many successful business people have been copied and while it is hard, the advice is usually to take the high road. There are, however, some practical steps you can take to address this situation.

  1. Vent to a trusted friend or business colleague – try to avoid public naming and shaming if possible as it can backfire on you.
  2. If you have collected firm evidence of the copying (such as descriptions, wording or photos lifted from your website), contact the other business privately and ask them to remove the content. It goes without saying you should be certain that your business is the source of the original work before doing so.
  3. If the copying seems to be coming from your social media, use your privacy settings to block the copycat.
  4. Make sure you include a copyright statement on your website (you can see an example of a copyright statement here).

Your business name was copied

You may mistakenly believe that registering a business name through the Australian Government’s Business Registration Service gives you all the protection you need against someone else using the same name. However, although you must register a business name if using anything other than your legal name to trade, it doesn’t give you exclusive ownership of that name.

The best form of protection is by registering your name as a trademark through IP Australia. Trademarking your business name prevents other people from trading with it in the same category of goods and services as you. It is worth noting that trademarks only protect you in Australian states and territories.


Use the new TM Checker tool from IP Australia to run a free initial check to ensure your trademark is available

IP Australia outlines what you can do if someone uses your trademark or another version of your intellectual property (IP) without your permission.

It’s also a good idea to secure versions of your domain name and social media account names that match your business as early as possible. There is nothing to prevent other people registering domain names and social media accounts with the same name as your business.

Your artwork was copied

Copyright is a free and automatic legal right given to the creators of original works, like photographs, artworks and music. It exists from the time your idea is put into ‘material form’ – that is, it’s written down or recorded in some way – and lasts for 70 years beyond the life of the idea’s creator. You don’t need to register for this copyright and the Australian Copyright Council offers free legal advice and fact sheets for specified people and affiliated organisations.

The rise of online platforms for artists and designers to showcase their portfolios has had the unfortunate side-effect of giving access to their art to people who want to use if for their own commercial gain, including international fashion companies.

Watermarking your work before putting it online will make it hard for people to copy it. You can also consider adding a copyright message in the description on your website or social media, such as ‘Copyright F. Bloggs 2023’ and a request not to re-post images without crediting you or linking back to your website or social media accounts.

More information

If you feel that your business has been copied and want to know what you can do about it, you can also contact our free business advisory service for confidential advice.

Legal and risk
23 January 2023