Can someone steal your big idea?
Yep, you bet. The general rule is that ideas alone are not protectable by law.
That’s the bad news, but the good news is that if you reduce that idea to a product, or written expression, or prototype, or some other tangible expression, that is protectable. But a brainstorm? Not protected by law for the most part.
OK, with that caveat in mind, let’s look at how you can protect your actual “intellectual property.” Here are the basic tools:
Non-disclosure agreement (NDA): There are times when you want to share proprietary business information with someone else. In that case, you can have people sign an NDA, which essentially says that you are sharing confidential business information with the other party and they cannot use it without your prior, express written permission.
Copyright: Copyright protects written expressions in tangible forms – things like this article, or a book, manuscript, or photograph. A copyright gives you the exclusive right to reproduce the work.
There are basically two ways to create a copyright. The first is simply by creating the work – this sentence is being copywritten as I write it by operation of law. The second is to register your work with the United States Copyright Office. Having a registered copyright (©) gives you extra legal protection.
Trademark: A trademark is a phrase (“Just Do It”), name (McDonalds) or symbol (The McDonald’s golden arches) that denotes a name or business that is unique in the marketplace. There are two ways to create a trademark. The first is to simply attach a trademark symbol (™) next to your intellectual property. The other is to register the trademark with the Unites States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO.gov) and then get a registered trademark (®).
Patent: A patent protects an invention. Unlike a copyright or trademark, patents are not created by simply affixing a common law symbol to the product, instead, a patent must be applied for (“patent pending”) and then obtained through the USPTO. And, also unlike a registered copyright or trademark which can typically be obtained without the assistance of a lawyer, getting a patent definitely requires legal help.
Trade secrets: Trade secrets are a formula (the recipe to KFC chicken for instance), list, pattern, device or compilation that gives you some sort or proprietary business advantage. A customer list is a good example. For a trade secret to be considered as such, it must be useful, proprietary, and also something that you do in fact work to keep secret. You can share a trade secret using an NDA.
You work hard to create your intellectual property, and so it would be wise to work equally hard to protect it.