I had a friend in college who told me that he had a business idea for a device that athletes could wear to improve their workout outcomes. After breaking down how the product worked and the physiology behind its use, he promptly swore me to secrecy.
This is a common concern of many entrepreneurs regarding their business ideas. We sometimes have this unrelenting fear that our ideas might be stolen, often making us paranoid about with whom we share our plans. So, we think about how we’re going to protect our precious ideas. And, such thoughts often lead us to getting a patent.
Patents are commonplace when we think about inventions. Arvind Thiagarajan, an Indian inventor, is often touted for holding 42 patents. Thomas Edison is said to have held 2,332 patents for his inventions. No doubt, if legal protection is your hope, along with the impressed nod of your peers, a patent may be what you need.
But, the top patent service provider, Invntree, completed a study of multiple countries and the waiting periods for patents in various fields, including electricity, mechanical engineering, and human necessities (whatever that is).
They found that the fastest patent approval process in 2011 was 23 months for a textile patent in France. Other patents could take as long as 101 months, like a chemistry patent in Canada. Really, no matter what your patent re quirements, you have at least a two-year wait.
The US patent office even has a website with the sole purpose of telling you how long the wait would be for a patent.
On top of the crazy long wait, the price of getting a patent will have most people needing a minute to collect themselves. Depending on the complexity of your patent application, getting a patent can cost anywhere from $6,000 to $19,000. For most of us, this makes a patent unrealistic.
This brings us to today’s topic: How can you protect your ideas without getting a patent?
When you’re going forward with your business idea, make sure you research the field in which your idea would fit.
Are there similar inventions to yours?
Don’t worry if another company is using your idea. It may actually help you more than you would think.
See, if this is the case, you get an opportunity that most others don’t. You get to see your business idea in action before you even start. You can see what works and what does not, improving upon your original idea to make it even better.
Just as important as it is to study the field, you also need to research everyone you bring into the process. You can’t plan for everything, but it’s naive to blindly trust anyone, while you work to build your business.
To make sure you’re not caught off guard, learn everything you can about the people you hire. What is their track record? Have they been entrusted with sensitive information before? What have they done for other businesses as these other companies developed their business ideas into products?
Get answers for your nagging questions so that no red flags are left unacknowledged.
Sign a Confidentiality Agreement
Even after you do your due diligence, make sure you’re covered by having everyone sign a confidentiality agreement. If you believe your intellectual property is something really special, make sure you protect it. Pay for time with a lawyer or meet with your buddy who just passed the Bar and get something written up with a signature line.
That being said, know who should and should not be asked to sign such an agreement. Some business relationships you want to have the people keep their mouths shut, while others you don’t want to lose because of your protective habits.
For example, it’s completely fine and understandable to have all staff members sign an agreement to not share any intellectual property developed by your business. But, at the same time, it’s completely awkward and a surefire way to lose capital if you ask your investors to sign a confidentiality agreement.
Just think about it. You’re not trying to protect your idea, but how you make that idea a reality. Investors care about the reality; not the how. So, save the legal paperwork for your staff.
Document Document Document
One of my professors always said, “if it isn’t written down, it never happened.”
Just like the confidentiality agreement, whenever you make a decision or a deal, get it in writing. This is where habits common in fields like medical and social work can come in handy.
Documentation of when meetings took place, what was discussed, and what was agreed upon not only helps you keep track of everything your business does, it’ll also come in handy in the unlikely event that you find yourself in court.
The documentation doesn’t need to feel like the Nixon White House tapes. You’re not trying to shoot for paranoia here; just find a reliable way to keep track of daily important activities. So, just be diligent to keep it current.
If you find yourself lucky enough to have a business idea that you’re passionate about, don’t freak out about getting a patent to protect it. There are more ways than one to keep your ideas safe. All it takes is patience, research, and a realistic mindset.
Have you had any experience with protecting your intellectual property? Please leave your experiences and questions in the comments section below.