Q: Mr. Strauss – I have an idea for a product that will revolutionize the food industry. My question for you is how do I go about protecting this idea and making sure no one steals it? Also, how do I sell this idea to a company in this industry and what should I charge? I would be happy to give you a finder’s fee if you can help me locate the right company. This idea can make us both rich. -RJ
A: I probably get variations on this question a few times a year, so let me state this unequivocally:
Ideas cannot be protected. Period.
An idea is just that – an idea. That’s it. An idea is not a product. An idea is not a business. An idea cannot be patented or trademarked or copyrighted. An idea is an intangible thing that is not given legal protection.
A patent is protection that is given to a product or invention. A copyright protects creative expressions of authorship such as a song or a book. A trademark protects things like logos and brand names. The difference between all of those types of intellectual property and an idea is that with the former, someone has taken idea and given it shape and form, but the latter is nothing real or proprietary.
The fact is, ideas are a dime a dozen. In reality, usually, the idea is the easy part. The challenge, and the thing that is protected, is when someone puts sweat equity into an idea, gives it form and function, and turns that idea into something tangible.
No company will pay you, or give you some sort of ongoing royalty, for your idea. Having something tangible to share is the key. Companies do buy ideas that are patented or trademarked. In that case, you have something real and exclusive to sell. But an idea alone is neither.
The other problem with folks who think that their brilliant idea is enough to earn them a million dollars without having to do any work is that, at least in my experience, rarely does someone actually want to steal your great idea, for two reasons:
- They are not as enthused about it as you. Now, you may think you have come up with the greatest idea since sliced bread, and maybe you have, but without actually taking that idea and turning it into something, it’s really nothing. And getting someone excited about an intangible nothing, even if it is a clever nothing, is difficult.
- They know it takes work. Even if your idea is as great as you think it is, other people know that taking an idea from inspiration to market typically takes years and a lot of money. Most people are so busy with their own things that they cannot be bothered to steal yours and hope that their toil and trouble will eventually be worth it.
Now with that general rule in place, let’s note that there are times when you may need to share an idea with someone or some entity and you want everyone to know that you thought of it first. In that case, here is what you can do:
Have them sign an NDA. Non-disclosure agreements are documents that state that you are sharing proprietary, non-public information and that the other party cannot share it without your prior, written approval. NDAs usually cover business proposals, information, products, or ideas in development.
Other than that, remember the famous words of Thomas Edison: “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.”
Steve Strauss is a senior small business columnist at USA TODAY and author of 15 books, including The Small Business Bible.