It is one of the most common questions I get asked:

Nick, I have a great idea but I don’t want to share it with anyone in case they steal it.

How can I prevent someone from stealing my idea?

Wow, if I had a penny for every time I heard that.

In the video above, I go through the three major ways that you can protect your ideas:

  • Trademarks
  • Copyrights
  • Patents

I also go through the slightly more controversial topic of why you probably don’t need to worry about someone stealing your ideas at all.

What are Trademarks?

Used to protect: Brand, name and items which associate a product with a particular company.

A Trademark is a form on intellectual property which identifies the brand owner of a property, and is used to primarily show that a product or service belongs to your company.

It is used to prevent other companies from impersonating your brand, or fool a customer into thinking that they are purchasing from you when in fact they are buying from someone else.

A common example of this would be the cheap fake fashion companies who produce counterfeit brands which sound almost exactly like the high-end designers they are trying to imitate.

In an extreme case, the city of Renhui in China had to shut down two physical stores calling themselves “Plada” and “Loius Vuitton”.

Fake Loius Vuitton store in Renhui china - Photo by Zigor Aldama

Fake Loius Vuitton store in Renhui china – Photo by Zigor Aldama

In most cases, trademarks need to be legally registered in the company of operation, although in some countries, common law trademark rights exist, which do not need to be registered but hold less legal power. Trademarks may cover the name of the business or brand, but also extend to prominent branding styles or signature messages which are closely associated. So while McDonalds owns the trademarks for their name, logo, Ronald McDonald etc, they have also prevented other food companies from putting the prefix “Mac” in front of their food products, but have not taken legal action against Mac Cosmetics.

What is Copyright?

Used to protect: Published artistic works

Copyright is used to protect the original artistic work produced by someone once it has been published. It gives the creator the legal right to determine if and how their work is to be used by others.

This may be a piece of literature, music, poetry, film, art, design or choreographed dance, amongst many other forms of artistic output.

Generally, copyright is applied automatically once a piece is published, and depending on the country, will last for the duration of the creator’s life, plus between 50 and 70 years after their death, to benefit their descendants and estate.

It is important that the piece is published in a tangible form, so that this can be used as a reference. So for example in music, the piece would either need to be published as the notes to be played on sheet music, or be recorded onto a tape/vinyl track/audio file which can then be referenced later.

The piece also needs to prove minimum thresholds of originality in order to prove it was developed by the creator. This can be extremely challenging in some cases to prove, although in many cases the minimum requirement is that “skill, labour and judgement” has gone into it, and it is not based on someone else’s work beforehand.

Like the other forms of legal protection described here, copyright does not automatically prevent other people from taking and using your creative work, it only gives you the legal right to pursue them for damages if they do. It is then the creator’s choice to take legal action (which can be expensive) to pursue their claim.

I have written extensively about a recent change to the copyright laws in the USA, which you can read here.

What are Patents?

Used to protect: new products, designs and innovations.

A patent gives its owner the right to exclude others from making, using, selling, and importing an invention for a limited period of time, usually twenty years. Patents need to be applied for, and will only be granted once they are reviewed and approved by the organisation which distributes patents in that country’s legislation.

Once again, you can only patent the actual designs for the working of a new product, not the idea of the product itself.

However, in order to receive a patent and protect their innovation, the owner needs to disclose in the patent how the innovation works, in enough detail that once the patent has expired, someone with a reasonable understanding of the product and skill is able to make their own versions.

A patent is a way to get a short term monopoly on your innovation, after which it will become available for anyone to use and manufacture.

This is the benefit for the creator (short term) and society at large (long term).

A good example of how this benefit works is in the pharmaceutical sector. It can take billions of dollars to develop new drugs. It only makes financial sense for pharmaceutical companies to invest this money in Research & Development if they can make a profit once it is complete (and even then, there is no guarantee of success). If once a drug has been tested and released, anyone could copy the formula and release their own version without having incurred the cost of the R&D, then the original pharmaceutical company would not be able to make enough money to cover their original costs. This would prevent them from investing in R&D in the first place, and no new drugs / medicines would be developed. A patent allows them a limited period of time within which to benefit from their invention, which would be enough time to earn back the original costs and make a profit. Once the time period of the patent expires, other companies can then use the formula and cheaper generic versions are available, which benefits society.

Much like the copyright example above, a creator still needs to take legal action against anyone trying to infringe on their patent.

Patent law has however been mired in controversy in the past few years, with “patent trolls” who do not create anything buying patents and suing other companies for their usage. This has been especially prevalent in the technology and software sectors. As a response, the USA changed their patent laws to show that a patent needs to be an original creator by the creator, and that they actually are involved in that industry. However, this has also made it more challenging for small companies to prove and enforce their patents.

How do I protect my ideas?

If you look at all of the Intellectual Property protections outlined above, you will notice something similar with all of them…

They do not protect ideas.

That’s right, you cannot protect an idea itself.

It needs to be turned into something, executed into an innovation or published in a tangible form before it can be protected.

I often tell people:

Ideas are priceless. Because while you may think they are valuable, you can’t put a price on them until you turn them into reality.

The other thing to remember is that while you may think that your idea is amazing, it will only really be worthwhile for other people to copy once it has been executed. Companies are not interested in copying vague ideas which don’t have any detail or evidence behind them. They will only really pay attention when they see something real, where they can assess and see value.

In the video above, I talked about an idea which I had when I was a teenager, that was going to revolutionise the energy industry and be worth trillions of dollars. And I gave away that idea on the call, because:

The value is not in the idea. It is in the execution of the idea.

So how do you protect your ideas and prevent other people stealing them?

That’s the wrong mindset.

Instead, you should be thinking of how you produce something which your idea that someone would even think about stealing in the first place.

That way, by that point you already have an executed innovation and can begin benefitting from it, rather than it just being an idea in your head.

So go out there and make your ideas a reality.

What ideas are you currently working on? Let me know in the comments below.

Did you know that scientific evidence shows your creativity decreases over time

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Creativity & Innovation expert: I help individuals and companies build their creativity and innovation capabilities, so you can develop the next breakthrough idea which customers love. Chief Editor of and Founder / CEO of Improvides Innovation Consulting. Coach / Speaker / Author / TEDx Speaker / Voted as one of the most influential innovation bloggers.