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Protecting your concepts and ideas is regularly neglected by people, despite it being an essential part of nearly every single industry in the world. When you create an original work, you want to make sure that you are acknowledged as its author or creator. Don’t let your ideas slip away from you. A little caution and effort can save you from that dreadful saying: “if only I…”
Here is a practical guide to keeping your ideas, yours.
Be Careful When Sharing
We’ve all been there. Out of the blue, you’re struck with inspiration. You are sure your idea is ‘the next big thing’. Before you know it, you hop on Facebook, pick up the phone, or grab the nearest person in order to tell them about your great idea.
While enthusiasm is a good thing, you must be careful with whom you share your concepts with. Even if your friend or family member isn’t going to steal your idea, you never know who can get their hands on that information. Have you ever been told an apparent secret after hearing the words “okay, but don’t tell anyone…” – it is just that easy to have your idea away from you.
Keeping your ideas secret for a while is something I strongly recommend, especially since confidentiality agreements and copyrights don’t apply to everything. Any idea that you share, which isn’t formally written out or expressed in a ‘tangible form of media’, is difficult to prove as originally yours. Before you start spreading the news of your idea, make sure you have it expressed in a form of media – which I will further explain.
Take Notes and Make a File
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I am an avid note-taker. I’ve experienced firsthand when you get an idea late at night or driving in your car. Do not make the mistake of saying “I’ll remember it later” – chances are you won’t. Keep a notebook and voice recorder on you at all times; you never know when that inspiration is going to hit.
Keep your notes, sketches, records, prototypes and files in a single place, such as a protected folder or safe. Be sure to sign and date all of your work for reference. You want to be able to keep your ideas organized and clearly identified.
Your goal in all this is to create an official file that expresses your idea. This file is called a ‘tangible form of media’, and can an illustration or sketch, a written description or document, a model or prototype, or anything else that clearly expresses your idea. This ‘media’ should make it very clear what your idea is, when it was created, who it belongs to, and what it consists of. Also, this media needs to be tangible, meaning that you must be able to hold in your hands, or open it on your computer. If you are not sure whether or not your idea is sufficiently expressed in a form of media, put yourself in a courtroom situation. Could you, with the media you have created, be able to prove that your idea is your own, and it was created when you say it was?
There are many theories about copyright protection. The most common theory I have heard is the ‘poor man’s copyright’. This is the process of printing or writing your media, mailing it to yourself, and keeping the envelope sealed. The unopened letter would serve as your proof, as to what you created, and when you created it – this process unfortunately does not work. However, you will sometimes see people take a picture of part of their designs, or take a paragraph out of their book, and make it public on social networks. If you include your name, the date, and a copyright symbol (©) you will have a basic public record of your work and when it was made, as well as express to whoever views that you own that item, and it is not available for use or copy. Again, if you could prove to someone that you have created something, when it was created, and it is expressed in a tangible form of media, you have created a basic, unregistered copyright on that item.
NDAs – Non-Disclosure Agreements
If you are not familiar with the concept of NDAs, this will make a world of difference for you. A non-disclosure agreement (or confidentially agreement) is a legal contract made between two or more parties, which outlines what information they are not allowed to share once you disclose it to them. In other words, you agree to give someone information, and they agree to not release that information to anyone else. NDAs are fantastic; you can use them to sit down with professionals and advisors without fear that they will run away with your ideas.
These agreements should always include the names of the people you are disclosing information to, what information you have giving them, and how long or under what circumstances do they need to keep that information secret.
You can find samples and templates of NDAs all over the Internet, which should help you create your own. Once complete, bring one of these agreements with you to all of your meetings, have your associate sign it, and write on it what documents you have discussed. Again, an idea is not legally protected; you need to have it formally written down in order to have an NDA or copyright apply to it.
Keep in mind that this is a legal agreement, and should be reviewed by someone with legal experience to ensure that all the necessary information is present.
Copyright, Patent, and Trademark
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So now you have your idea expressed in a form of media, and you want to ensure that no one else can touch it. The final form of protection is registering your idea as ‘intellectual property’. Intellectual property refers to any original idea you have created into a copyright, trademark, or patent. These 3 forms of registration apply to different medias, and have different rules attached to them.
A Copyright applies to such areas as songs, plays, poems, books, and other “original works of authorship”. Your work does not have to be published in order to register your copyright, as long as you have a finished product, you can registered your work with your government’s copyright office.
A Trademark applies to logos, titles, names, words, or anything that you use to individualize yourself, your business, or your product from others. Registering for a trademark with your state or federal government helps you not only officially protect your name or symbol, but also helps you recognize whether or not that item is already in use.
A Patent is used for a physical, functional product or invention. Holding a patent on a product gives you exclusive rights to it’s unique features, gives you exclusive manufacturing rights on that product, and keeps anyone else from having a legal right to apply those features to their own invention.
These processes can get confusing, and are not cheap. Different rules apply to these 3 forms of protection. You should contact your state or federal office for more information on how to register, and what registering does for your idea. Registering also only applies to the country you are registering with, meaning that your idea may be fair game somewhere else in the world (not to mention, some countries don’t honor the concept of intellectual property).
Copyrights, trademarks, and patents are each special forms of law, and I again recommend getting legal council or assistance in carrying out any of these steps.
Start Using the Idea
This is more of a personal plea than a professional tip. I hear so often about how so-and-so’s dad thought of the drive thru before anybody else, and how somebody’s roommate came up with Twitter back in ’05. Your ideas, even if protected, serve no purpose until they are put into action.
Since I entered the business world, I am approached consistently by people who tell me all about their big ideas. In all honesty, some of them are just terrible, but others have fantastic potential! One of the first questions I’ll ask them is, “so what is your plan?” They usually look at me sideways. “You have the idea, so now what? What are the steps you are going to take to get that idea out there?” Less than 1% of the people I talk with have a solid plan to turn their idea into anything other than just an idea.
It can be intimidating – creating a business, designing a product, or moving from employment to self-employment. You need to take the time to study, and sit down with someone who has been successful in the field you are interested in, and even then there will always be reasons not to pursue your ideas. However, the rewards for protecting your ideas, and turning them into products, can reap incredible results!
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