Disclaimer: This content is for general legal education purposes only and shouldn’t not be relied upon as legal advice specific to your situation. If you need legal advice, consult a licensed attorney.
You know you have a groundbreaking idea, and you’re willing to do whatever it takes to make sure that no one steals it.
Your idea might be for a trendy name for your business, an amazing logo, a cool invention, a clever design for your online platform, or a host of other things you plan to do.
But then the unthinkable happens: you learn that someone somewhere out there has an idea that’s pretty similar to yours (almost too similar). They stole your thunder before you could fully flesh your idea out and act on it.
You think: “Egad! If only I had protected my intellectual property! I could have prevented this!” (Okay, maybe “egad” is a bit much, but you get my point).
What Intellectual Property Isn't
The problem with the line of thinking identified above is that ideas are like opinions (which are like a certain body part) — everyone has them.
If everyone could enforce ownership rights over every idea they’ve ever had, there would be so many disputes over ideas that we couldn’t possibly resolve them all, even if our entire legal system was devoted to that kind of dispute resolution.
So ideas, by themselves, are not intellectual property. On their own, ideas are just…thoughts. Even if they are about some new innovation for your business, your thoughts are intangible phenomena that can’t be proven to exist and don’t have an independent value that can be objectively evaluated. Therefore, ideas alone aren’t entitled to legal protection.
Pause for a moment. I’m not saying that your ideas are worthless.
But it is important for you to know that the law doesn’t protect ideas. It protects the expression or implementation of your ideas.
Once stuff is out in the open, then as a society ordered by a set of laws, we can attribute ownership over the stuff to the right individuals or organizations. We can’t do that if stuff is hidden or out of public view.
What Intellectual Property Is
So how do you transform your ideas into intellectual property?
Act on them! Do something that emancipates your ideas from the confines of your mind and lays the foundation for establishing what they’re worth.
- Got a cool, new invention? Develop a prototype for it.
- Got a trendy new name for your business or an amazing logo? Start using it. For instance, set up your website and display it boldly on every page.
- Got a clever design for an online platform? Sketch out all the elements. Maybe even publish it.
This is the fundamental principle: Ideas + action = intellectual property.
Once you get to the point where you express or implement your ideas, then you can take the next steps to preserve your intellectual property rights by seeking legal protection. For example, you might:
- Seek a patent for your prototype.
- Claim common law trademark rights by using the ™ symbol. Better yet, apply for a federal trademark registration when appropriate so you can use the ® symbol and nail down exclusive legal rights over your branding nationwide.
- Use a copyright notice (e.g., like the one that’s at the very, very bottom of this page) to notify folks that you own the design for your platform. You should also consider filing a federal copyright registration for it to strengthen your legal rights and give you broad options to deal with infringers.
Wait a Minute...
I know what you’re probably thinking at this point. “Hold up. If ideas aren’t intellectual property, then why do people sign non-disclosure agreements?” Good point.
Non-disclosure agreements are essentially agreements to keep certain things confidential. People sometimes use these agreements before sharing an idea with someone else who can help them develop or implement the idea. These contracts tend to be really important in the tech world.
But you must distinguish between contract law principles and intellectual property law principles to understand the significance of non-disclosure agreements (NDA). A contract is just a document that outlines the terms of a deal, and the deal at issue in an NDA is about how to value and treat the information (or idea) identified in the contract.
For instance, if John violates an NDA he had with Patty about Patty’s idea, Patty could sue John. This is because contract law provides a mechanism to crack down on people who don’t honor the deals they’ve struck with others. So Patty would probably win her lawsuit, but not because her idea was incredibly awesome or valuable. She’d win because John broke their deal.
Wrapping It Up
As a matter of intellectual property law, the idea + action = intellectual property principle still stands. Start building your intellectual property by taking action to express or implement your ideas. Your business will be better off for it!
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Faith Mitton, Esq.
About The Content Creator
Faith Mitton, Esq.
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