Keep it Secret
The most effective way to protect ideas is to keep them as a trade secret, but figuring out how to protect an idea can take a fair amount of effort. You will need to screen everyone you do business with, from employees to your partners, ask everyone to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement before accessing the confidential information, and ensure that the invention is used in a manner that protects its secrecy. The good news is, if the invention derives independent economic value (increases your profits, basically), implementing these measures will qualify you for protection under the Uniform Trade Secrets Act (UTSA). The UTSA, enacted in almost the entire U.S., except for the states of New York, North Carolina, and Massachusetts, is designed to protect trade secrets from misappropriation by enabling injunctive relief and damages against parties that obtained your idea through improper means, such as espionage or theft.
Get a Provisional Patent
The UTSA does not protect you from legitimate means of coming up with the same idea, such as reverse engineering or independently coming up with the same invention. In this case, filing for a Provisional Patent with the United States Patent and Trademark Office can be a good alternative. It will grant you a 12-month period for filing a proper, non-provisional patent application. Once you file the non-provisional application, the patent protection you receive will be retroactively applied all the way to the filing date for the provisional application, rather than starting at the filing date for the Non-Provisional application.
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.