The ideas business is a lot different than it was 25 years ago, changed irrevocably by the creation of the Internet and digital technology. In years past, if you were going to create something, it was nearly always a physical object that would require schematics and a prototype before you even thought about selling it.
Inventions still come in all shapes and sizes, but some have neither – existing only as lines of code, apps on a hard drive , or test websites. These creations are much more nebulous than the latest gizmo, geegaw, or gadget, and thus can be easier for someone to claim for their own if you don’t take adequate steps to protect them.
The first step to take in protecting your idea, known in legal jargon as intellectual property, is to act like its one of your children. In other words, don’t expose it to anyone you don’t trust with your life. Blabbing about a great idea you’ve had or a project you’re working on while in mixed company at a party, at your job, or even someplace as innocuous as the local coffee shop can be the perfect setting for your idea to get stolen, with you completely powerless to do anything about it.
Guarding Your Work Space
More likely than not, you’re going to need help in taking your intellectual property from vision to reality. If you’re a programmer, you’ll need someone to write your press releases; if you’re a salesman, you need someone to build your prototype, and so on. Bringing others into the mix when it comes to your idea is the perfect place to start documenting what you’re doing legally, so if things do get messy you’ll have a paper trail on your side in court.
Two standard forms can be absolute lifesavers when it comes to protecting what’s yours, even before it gets a patent or a trademark affixed to its name.
The first is the non-disclosure agreement (NDA) which basically puts a muzzle on anyone working on the project with you when it comes to sharing the information you’re giving them to work with. While some NDAs have dates affixed to them, the smarter move is to leave it undated, implying a lifetime ban on one party mentioning the contents of the intellectual property to anyone else.
The second is the non-compete agreement (NCA) which usually encompasses either a physical radius, a length of time, or both in which a person hired to work for you is not allowed to open a business that is directly in competition to your own. This is a common agreement signed by doctors and other healthcare professionals upon joining a practice, but it’s a smart move for designers and inventors as well; If Larry Page hadn’t entered into an NCA with Sergey Brin back in 1998, ‘ol Serge might have walked out the door for some fresh air, raced across the street to an Internet cafe and founded his own powerful global search engine called Bloogle.
If someone is going to be working for your new company for an extended period of time, consider putting together a work-for-hire agreement; these ensure you keep all the rights to your idea and any improvements built upon it. This keeps someone from claiming co-ownership based on their work to improve it.
Bottom Line: While a trademark or patent is the preferred avenue for protecting your intellectual property, there are other options to keep your ownership documented and safe.