How Do I Stop Others From Stealing My Ideas?
Did you know that Intellectual property, or IP, is responsible for over seven trillion dollars of the United States gross domestic product? That means roughly one third of every dollar produced annually is impacted by some form of IP. As a nation we value creativity and innovation, and we have four primary mechanisms of protecting our unique ideas.
The first mechanism is a patent. It is awarded by the federal government to an idea that is deemed 1) New, 2) Useful, and 3) Non-obvious. The patent essentially grants the holder a 20-year term to leverage his or her invention as a monopoly before this useful idea is released into the public domain.
We have a rather romantic notion of inventors in the United States, quickly conjuring thoughts of Alexander Gram Bell, Henry Ford, and Samuel Colt.
But the idea of an individual experiencing a lightning strike moment of genius and then becoming a multi-millionaire off his patented invention is mostly a thing of the past.
Today, patents have become the domain of big corporations, with a majority of patents being held by Fortune 500 companies. Simply acquiring a patent is an expensive process requiring the expertise of a patent attorney. And defending your patent can be even more expensive, as competitors infringe upon and attack the validity of your mini monopoly.
The second form of intellectual property protection is a copyright. While patents last 20 years, copyrights last 100 years! Why the difference? Patents are awarded to ideas that are, in part, considered “useful,” while copyrights are awarded to things that most of us would consider just plain “fun.”
Some of our most beloved things in the world today also rank amongst the world’s most valuable copyrights. The books of JK Rowling, movie franchises like Star Wars, the music of The Beatles, and iconic pop-culture characters like Batman, derive their financial power from the copyrights that protect them.
The copyright allows the creator to license their creation to publishers, studios, record labels, amusement parks, and even fast-food restaurant chains to leverage the copyright’s notoriety and value throughout the world.
The third IP protection mechanism is a Trademark. As long as its properly renewed, a trademark can last forever! The most common application of a trademark is corporate and product branding.
Examples include the Nike “swoosh,” the McDonald’s “golden arches,” and the “once bitten apple” of… you know who.
While one trademark may be used to define an entire company, there are often multiple additional marks defining individual product lines within the company. Like Nike’s Air Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and Lebron James collections.
Sometimes confusing is the distinction between Trademarks and Copyrights.
Here’s an example to keep them straight. Marvel comics is a trademarked brand, which owns The Amazing Spiderman, another trademarked brand. Both of these valuable trademarks appear on every Amazing Spiderman comic… which is an original collection of written stories and drawings protected by its own copyright.
The fourth and final IP protection mechanism is a trade secret. Unlike patents, copyrights, and trademarks, a trade secret is not granted a formal distinction, or catalogued by the federal government. In many cases, a trade secret could be patented, but this would require the secret be revealed through the patenting process. And if a patent was then successfully acquired, would then limit protection of the idea to a 20-year term.
Utilization of the trade secret designation sidesteps both issues.
The best example of a trade secret is the formula for Coca Cola. Only a precious few individuals within the company have access to the entire formula. And all employees are bound under strict agreements acknowledging the value of the formula and their duty to protect it if they happen to inadvertently gain access to it. By taking steps to designate the formula as a trade secret, Coca Cola enjoys the protection of specific laws preventing misappropriation.
In 2006, a Coca Cola employee attempted to sell a company trade secret to rival Pepsi,
and ended up being criminally prosecuted and sentenced in federal court. The same fate would likely befall individuals that misappropriated other valuable trade secrets such as Google’s search algorithm, or Kentucky Fried Chicken’s secret blend of 11 herbs and spices.
If you own existing intellectual property, or are thinking about creating new intellectual property, your best strategy is to consult a lawyer familiar with the subject matter. Protection is crucial to maximizing your IP’s value, and you should make sure all protection mechanisms available to you and are built into your overall business strategy from day one.