Business owners with great ideas often worry someone will steal their plan or invention. The fear isn’t entirely unfounded, although the risk is lower than some might think. For example, the risk of someone stealing your idea is low if you have a patent. A patent is a form of legal protection that, when granted, gives you the exclusive right to use your invention or process. If you create an entirely new type of machine, for example, and secure a patent, your invention is safe from theft.
The problem is, not all ideas can be patented. For instance, if your business idea is to open a particular kind of restaurant that would do well in a neighborhood, that idea is not patentable. In order to secure a patent, your idea must fit the requirements of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Generally, if your idea is not a process, machine or material product -- or a novel improvement on any of these things -- chances are it is not patentable. In other words, if you can’t or don’t secure a patent, your idea could be stolen.
If you don’t have a patent, the risk of your idea being stolen depends on its value. If, for instance, you have an excellent idea for a marketing campaign that no one has ever thought of, another company might steal the idea, and there’s little you can do about it. But if your business idea is fairly conventional, few companies would bother stealing it.
Oddly, not being able to get a patent might dissuade companies from even wanting to hear about your business idea. For example, many companies won’t even consider unsolicited submissions of ideas that haven't been patented under U.S. law or don't at least have a status of patent pending. The fear is that even entertaining such submissions might expose a company to lawsuits later, whether or not the company actually steals the idea.
There’s no simple way to determine how risky it is to share your idea with others. The only effective approach is to speak to an intellectual property attorney about your idea and see what options you have for protecting it. For example, if you plan to approach businesses about joining your venture, it might make sense to have them sign a confidentiality agreement beforehand and to get the process started to patent your idea. A lawyer can help with both tasks and perhaps offer specific suggestions for limiting your risk.