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What can I do to protect my idea when I discuss it with others?

The legal term for an idea, invention, or creative work that you came up with is intellectual property, or IP for short. Like with any other kind of property people want to protect, there are laws that apply specifically to IP. The best way to protect your idea when just getting started is to share it with as few people as possible. Lowering the number of people who know about the idea can lower the chance that someone else tries to use your work. However, keeping an idea to yourself can be hard, especially when you want to share it to get feedback.

No matter what, you will probably have to share your idea with a few people as you get it off the ground. As you share your ideas with others, you might want to develop and use a Non-Disclosure Agreement. This document can keep people from sharing your ideas with others. It is a written legal document that describes what ideas belong to you and what will happen if the other person uses or shares them.

You can also use other legal protections, depending on the type of idea you have. You may need to register or apply for these protections to get their full legal value.

Copyrights

Copyright protection affects works that are seen as artistic, including websites, musical works, and written works. Things like lyrics, books, and photos generally qualify for copyright protection.

Copyrights appear as soon as you make an original piece of work. You do not have to register your work to get copyright protection. However, you might want to because you get more legal protection by registering.

Trademarks

A trademark is a symbol, name, or phrase you use to describe your business or product. It helps to show how your product is different from the competition. It can be a business name, a slogan, a product name and description, or something else.

A trademark exists as soon as you start using it. Like a copyright, legal protections do exist for unregistered trademarks. However, you get more protections and benefits if you take the extra step to register your trademark.

Patents

If you are an inventor, you have likely heard of a patent. A patent protects inventions from being made or used by others. You can patent a wide range of original things, from machines to chemical compounds to processes to parts of a larger invention.

How do I know if my invention qualifies for patent protection?

Not every invention can be patented. You usually have to go through a patent application process to request a patent, and your invention must follow certain rules to be approved. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office typically reviews each application to see if it is in fact a new invention. This process can take a long time. In some cases, the whole process can take a few years. During that time, you may be able to move forward with your patent application pending.

To qualify for a patent, a few things usually must be true about your invention. For example, it may have to be:

  • New or novel.
  • Not obvious.
  • Specifically described so that someone else could make and use it.
  • Claimed by the inventor in clear and exact terms.

In general, to get a patent, an invention must be something new, and the description of it must contain enough detail that others can tell what it is and make it. Abstract ideas are usually not specific enough for a patent. Often, patent applications include technical drawings, diagrams of the product, or working models.

Patent protection is not available for natural laws or events. You also cannot get a patent for inventions that are not useful or are likely to offend a lot of people.

Literary works and music cannot be patented. They are copyrighted instead.

What are the risks of taking an idea to market without some type of intellectual property protection?

Sadly, other people sometimes steal ideas and inventions, and that risk is higher if you have a good idea. If you move from idea to market without protecting your idea legally, someone else could take your idea and use it to make money that could have been yours.

Registering your trademark or copyright and getting a patent are legal ways to show that the idea or invention is yours. They set a date when the idea came about and show that it came from you. Without that proof, it can be very hard to show that someone else took your idea from you if you try to start legal action. If you cannot prove that the idea was yours, you may lose the legal rights to it altogether.

What will I need to show to license or sell my invention to another company?

In general, there are two ways to sell your invention to another person or company. You can license the invention and collect payments from it, or you can sell all of the rights to control and make your invention.

Either way, you can simply make a legal contract, often called a Buy-Sell Agreement. The law typically does not say you have to have a registered copyright or patent before you sell the rights to your invention. But, you may face legal consequences if someone else patented your idea first. You might want to go through the patent process to give yourself an extra layer of legal protection and confirm your idea is, in fact, an original idea. This is just as important when you choose to license the invention instead of selling it.

The specific type of invention might mean you need extra protection. It is a good idea to talk to a lawyer about what you might consider doing to protect yourself if you want to sell your invention. If you have questions about protecting your intellectual property, reach out to a Rocket Lawyer On Call® attorney for affordable legal advice.

This article contains general legal information and does not contain legal advice. Rocket Lawyer is not a law firm or a substitute for an attorney or law firm. The law is complex and changes often. For legal advice, please ask a lawyer.


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