Protecting IP ownership and rights in Australia: 6 things employers need to know

Published

Jun 8, 2023

Intellectual property rights protect a company’s ideas, distinguish its brand, and prevent any third parties from profiting off unoriginal work.

If you’re a global company hiring in Australia, you want to make sure you’re familiar with the country’s unique IP laws so that new inventions, designs, and trademarks are protected. Act slow and you risk losing out on market share, or worse, finding yourself in legal disputes with competitors.

So how can employers protect their IP? Read our primer on IP ownership rights in Australia for the basics, but keep in mind this guide is for informational purposes and not intended to provide legal advice.

1. NDAs are enforceable in Australia

In Australia, the courts have historically upheld non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) as enforceable, legally binding contracts so long as they’re reasonable and specific. 

In recent years, NDAs have come under fire for allowing Australian companies to cover up workplace misconduct such as sexual harassment and discrimination. Mark Dreyfus, the Australian Attorney General, recently committed to strengthening laws against NDAs that shield companies from criminal workplace behavior.

2. IP Australia handles rights and registrations for 4 different kinds of IP

IP Australia is an Australian government agency that administers the rights and legislation for the following:

Trademarks: Australian trademarks are used to protect and distinguish a company’s brand. They’re governed by common law and the Trade Marks Act 1995 (Cth). 

You can search already registered trademarks on the IP Australia website. If your idea isn’t taken, you can also apply for registration online provided you know the trademark’s ownership details, have a proof of concept of the trademark, and know which goods and services it applies to. 

While unregistered trademarks can still be recognized as legitimate, they’re much harder to legally protect than those registered with IP Australia. 

Patent protection: Patents can protect third parties from profiting off an invention. Governed by the Australia’s Patents Act 1990, they’re used to give companies exclusive commercial rights to technology, devices, substances, and processes. Patent holders also have the right to take legal action against IP infringement. 

Standard patents can last up to 20 years. You can get them by first filing a provisional patent application that signals your intent to get future IP protection before any competitors. Under the Patents Act, standard patents for inventions need to be novel, useful, and not previously used under the patentee’s authority.

Design rights: Australian companies can secure industrial design rights to protect the visual appearance of commercial products. You can file a design application with IP Australia. Registered designs give owners the exclusive rights to use the visual, but you have to separately certify the design to have the right to take legal action against others who use it. 

According to the Designs Act 2003, the owner of a registered design owns a monopoly on it until the registration renewal comes up every five years.

3. Documented ideas are automatically protected under Australian copyright law

Australia provides copyright protection for creative properties including:

  • Artistic works
  • Sound recordings
  • Computer programs
  • Visual images
  • Broadcasts

Copyright protection is automatic as soon as the creation is written on paper or electronically. Under the Copyright Act 1968, protection is free. While timeframes can vary depending on the type of copyright material, protections typically last:

  • 70 years after the death of the author
  • 70 years after sound recordings or films are first made public
  • 50 years after a television or radio program is broadcast

4. Always clarify IP ownership and protections in your employee agreement

Employers should include a clause in every employee agreement outlining IP protections with new hires. According to IP Australia, this can include:

  • Who owns the IP created by the employee
  • Who has the right to use the IP for commercial purposes
  • Conditions for a transfer or IP ownership
  • Confidentiality agreements for trade secrets and other proprietary information
  • Non-compete agreements 

Under Australian laws, employers own the IP created by employees on the job, so long as it’s relevant to the underlying business. For any exception to this rule to be legally binding, it needs to be in the employee agreement. 

5. Contractors own the copyright to their work unless you override this in a written agreement

IP protections are only enforceable if an employment relationship exists—so make sure you’re not misclassifying contractors. In Australia, independent contractors own IP they’ve developed for a company unless their contract states otherwise. 

Under Australian copyright law, contractors automatically own the copyright to their work, unless a client overrides this with a written contract. The contract must include:

  • Background IP owned by each party before entering into the work arrangement
  • Rules for IP generated during and within the work arrangement
  • Rules for IP that may be generated after the work arrangement ends

6. You have to localize IP ownership clauses to Australia

Australia's IP protection laws are different from many other countries' (including the US). Registering IP in one country won’t transfer over to Australia, and vice versa. Because of this, it's crucial for companies doing business in Australia to localize their IP ownership clauses to ensure they comply with Australian laws.

Frequently asked questions about IP law in Australia

Who owns IP in Australia: employee or employer?

Employers own IP created by employees as part of their work. For instance, if an employee creates new software for a tech company on company time, the employer owns the underlying IP. Any exceptions to this must be written into the employee agreement. 

What are some other types of IP Australian employers can protect?

Australian employers can also protect IP for:

  • Domain names: Australian internet addresses are regulated by the .au Domain Administration (auDA). You can use the agency’s website to search available domain names and seek registration for a new web address. 
  • Circuit layouts: Australian employers can protect IP for circuits used in computer chips for electronic equipment such as watches, household appliances, and medical technology. If the layout plan is original and created in Australia, the inventor automatically secures the IP, and has legal rights to it for 10 years after its creation. Circuit layout rights are managed by the Attorney General’s office. 

Does registering your business name give you exclusive rights to a trademark?

No. Australian business owners need to register business names with the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC). But this process doesn’t also secure rights to a trademark. To get trademark protection, you need to register the business name with IP Australia. 

The same goes for domain name registration. Other people can still use your business name, even if you registered it as a website. To gain further protection, you need to also register the name as a trademark. 

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Rippling and its affiliates do not provide tax, accounting or legal advice. This material has been prepared for informational purposes only, and is not intended to provide, and should not be relied on for, tax, legal or accounting advice. You should consult your own tax, legal and accounting advisors before engaging in any related activities or transactions.

last edited: June 28, 2023

The Author

Jackson Knapp

Jackson is a writer from DC, based in Los Angeles. For Rippling, he writes about the global workforce and specializes in hiring trends in Australia, India, the Philippines, and Japan.

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