Are you one of the many who make their living by coming up with new ideas? Whether you are in sales, advertising, design, public relations, or any field that requires a steady stream of original thought, you have probably noticed that your unique initiatives are always appreciated.
Can you protect your ideas?
The truth is that ideas are hard to protect. It takes a great deal of dedication and hard work. Imagine their annoyance when the Coca-Cola Company invented the six-bottle carry home pack with the convenient handle in 1923. Long before we had cans, everything came in glass. Carrying so many heavy bottles meant that customers bought fewer at a time.
Coke knew this would be a significant product feature, with people now obtaining refrigerators for the first time, which only added to the convenience. It would boost their sales immensely.
They gathered their designers and created every single possible variation they could think of, and patented them all, so no one else could have a carry home case. It was all for naught though, because, within a few months, almost everyone had a variation on their design, so they let the additional patents lapse and finally surrendered. The competitors had won.
What You Need To Know
Getting a patent is a long, arduous process which takes years (and lots of money), and it is essential if you have a brand new, meritorious idea that will have actual importance or impact in the world. The problem is that technology and innovation are advancing at such an incredible rate that by the time you obtain a patent, your idea may have been supplanted by something better, or the process may have become irrelevant. So what is the answer?
Provisional patents are much easier to obtain, less costly, and provide you with up to 12 months in which to test-market your product, to seek financing to develop it, or to license it to an established producer. You owe it to yourself to perform research to make sure that someone hasn’t thought of your idea before. At the very least you should browse Google™ and see what exists out there. Go through patent images, too, so you can see if your idea has “already been done.”
Trademarks, according to the U.S. Patent Trademark Office, are basically words, phrases, symbols, designs, or “a combination thereof” which distinguish and identify the “source of the goods of one party from those of others”. In other words, in order to distinguish your product from someone else’s, trademarks must be unique.
Copyrights also offer protection to original creations that are presented on a medium, such as canvas for art, physical or electronic media for music, video, or software, and so on.
Patent Bullies (or Trolls)
There are always those idlers who like to purchase patents from bankrupt companies, or patent “concepts” that are so broad as to be unenforceable, but the nuisance value and legal costs are so prohibitive to fight that companies often pay just to end the suit. The Supreme Court created a ruling back in May of 2017, restricting lawsuits to jurisdictions where the company has an established place of business. Now with “home-court” advantage, it’s much more difficult for the trolls to press their suits.
That doesn’t mean it can’t happen, but at least the Federal jurisdiction in East Texas that was processing 30 percent of the country’s bogus lawsuits is now out of business. If you reside in a locale where these sorts of actions are common, consider doing your development, or running your business, in a different jurisdiction, away from places where a lot of companies are incorporated, such as Delaware.
Protecting The Idea Itself
Legal protection is one thing; preventing idea erosion is another. If you’re working with a developer to manifest your idea or to bring it to market, be wary of the tendency to try to build one product to suit all purposes or to change an idea so that the “dumbest person in the room” can understand it.
Benjamin Franklin didn’t invent bifocals with built-in mist sprayers for when your eyes got tired of reading. Of course, that would be completely unnecessary and even silly, but someone might try to convince you that an “extra feature” could sell more of your product. If your product doesn’t need it, stand firm and say “no.”
By the same token, if something designed for ordinary people confounds a single person in a focus group, and you contemplate a change that would make your product less useful or needlessly complicated for ordinary people that “get it”, stand firm. You don’t need to sell to everyone, and people that need special accommodation to use your new product or idea aren’t very likely to be a part of your customer base anyway.
License your idea or product to a company with a spotless reputation for dealing with inventors. Make sure you speak to an expert lawyer that understands your product so they can draw up the agreement between you and the developer/producer.
You are going to want legal protections (including a performance clause), so that if the company goes into bankruptcy or receivership, your intellectual property will be returned to you, free-and-clear. The language of the contract should specifically state that any “improvements” to the product, concept, or idea shall become part of the intellectual property and that you own it under these circumstances.
Do some groundwork to figure the least expensive way to produce your product. This will help dissuade people from producing counterfeit copies because yours is already as inexpensive as possible.
If you need a particular URL for your product, idea, or company, register it immediately (e.g., “Urquhart Gifts)” with “Urquhart.com”, .net, .org, and all the high-level domains necessary, then register “UGL.com” and “Urkhart.com”, or other variations that someone might use to imitate your product. It’s not expensive to register several derivative names, and it is good protection. Put the registrations on automatic renewal, so someone doesn’t buy them out from under you when they expire.
Your NDA (non-disclosure agreement) is not going to be signed by anyone until you have at least given them a preliminary idea of what your product is about. Once they agree to move forward, get the NDA signed immediately.
Don’t expect too much up front. Make your income progressive as the idea/product becomes successful. Build and develop locally to begin and only go overseas after you’re established. Foreign Trade rules are involved, and it’s better to navigate them with an established company, good advice, and experience.
Be good to your customers. Build loyalty by responding to all problems in the most positive way possible. One misjudged Tweet can cause a massive backlash, so be proactive by following your social media and answering immediately. You can contract with a firm to stay on top of it, or just be aware and do it yourself.
Above all, do your research, so you don’t reinvent the wheel, tread on anyone’s toes, lose control of your idea, or utterly fail. Fortune favors the prepared, so do your homework!
Further Reading: 8 Ways to Harness Innovation and Creativity in the Workplace
At SC&C we offer Career Analysis to help senior decision-makers from all walks of life identify strategies and tactics to increase their value-add employment potential.