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First to File

Idea Theft

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Idea Theft

If you are afraid of someone stealing your idea you should be aware that it is highly unlikely since few people would be interested in devoting time and money to the development effort (or even just to the patenting or "protecting" effort). Even after you've gotten your inventor's notebook signed by witnesses, gotten non-disclosure agreements (often abbreviated NDAs) signed, done a proper Provisional Application and a full patent application, and gotten your patent you are still not "protected," you merely have rights. Patents, copyrights, and trademarks do not "protect" your invention or intellectual property.

The bottom line is NOTHING ever "protects" your invention. A patent, IF you can get one for your invention, merely gives you, mostly at your own trouble and expense, "the right to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale or selling the invention throughout the United States or importing the invention into the United States." Your "rights" do not even include the right to make and use your own invention since someone else may have a broader patent that allows them to exclude you from making their invention (and therefore your improved version), or the law may prohibit your invention (such as illegal drug use devices), or the government can simply suppress your invention for reasons of national security, and there may be some other minor reasons besides.

The government, by the way, only very rarely suppresses inventions and then nearly exclusively those that have serious military application. There is absolutely no truth to the rumors that the government has or is suppressing free energy inventions or 100 mpg carburetors, or prevented development of Tesla's inventions. You can search the PTO patent database and locate many patents for those "inventions" yourself--and, if you find the patents are expired, you are totally free to make those inventions yourself and get rich from them. The catch, of course, is those "inventions" really were actually unworkable and therefore the patent was technically invalid. (A patent is invalid for, among other reasons, the fact that it is not useful and therefore any patent that describes an unworkable device is deemed not useful and thus invalid.) The PTO's own audits estimate that about 10% of all patents they issue are invalid for non-workability or other reasons.

Theft of product ideas is actually extremely rare but you should also remember that IDEAS are not protectable intellectual property anyway. The USPTO explicitly states "A patent cannot be obtained upon a mere idea or suggestion."


One "theft" I was told about at our local inventors club meeting illustrates the point (among others) very well. An inventor invented a device for determining the polarity of electrical wires in an automobile. The device as patented used a switch that the user flipped back and forth causing the indicator bulb to go on or off as appropriate to show positive or negative. The theft "claim" by the inventor was that 2 weeks after a patent was awarded (and published by the USPTO), the inventor found an automatic (no switch) polarity tester in an auto parts store.

First, it is not possible to get a product to market in 2 weeks--especially through the auto parts distribution network--so my belief is that the inventor didn't do STEP 0 and go see what was on the market. Second, the idea of an auto wire polarity tester is not patentable, only an embodiment of that idea is, in this case with a switch. Third, the inventor did not simplify his invention (at least from a use perspective and probably even a manufacturing perspective) as much as his competitor did (probably with two bulbs and/or diodes and/or LEDs and/or resistors and/or other standard components). Fourth, any voltmeter (or multimeter) will provide the same information to a user with only 2 wires instead of the patented device's 3 (2 long wires needed for known (battery) positive and known (battery) negative and a probe). And fifth, an even simpler device with one long wire to known (battery) positive (or negative), one bulb, and a short probe will do the trick if the user understands that the bulb will not light for a same polarity connection but will for an opposite polarity one.

IDEAS are free by law, they cannot be stolen; that, unfortunately, doesn't prevent nincompoop jurors from occasionally awarding money to nincompoop idea claimants. An invention, "reduced to practice" (even if only via a description on paper), is no longer an IDEA; it is one (perhaps patentable) embodiment of that idea.

On the other hand, fear of theft has probably kept more than 1000 times as many great ideas locked in basements and garages than have ever been illegally stolen. In business terms: 100% of NOTHING is NOTHING; 50% of $1 million is $500,000--which is the better BUSINESS choice? In the long run, geniuses like you can have many more winning ideas while the thieves activities get known and they rapidly run out of significant victims.

If you keep a good log of who you talked to, and when and where and what you showed them, and someone steals your idea embodiment design and gets a patent, you will have some expense and trouble but the odds are that you will be able to get their patent invalidated. If the commercial essence of your IDEA was not patentable and someone you talked to about it (without an oral, or preferably written non-disclosure agreement) gets to market first and makes the big bucks--hey, that's the essence of the competitive, capitalistic reality that made the U.S. the great country you enjoy living in. Of course, you should never consider that person as your friend or ever trust them again.

I have probably investigated 7 or 8 claims of idea theft and found that none of them were actual instances of idea theft--even after the patent was gotten. The major fact of the matter is that too many inventors are left uneducated by their patent practitioners who simply do apply for and get very narrow patents for the "inventor." What the inventor does not realize is that the flashlight screwdriver or toilet seat lifter inventions are not "new" and that the inventor's novelty contribution was only some small nuance that allowed their practitioner to apply for and get a narrow "improvement" patent (so called whether the nuanced difference actually improves over any prior art or not). Another fellow I know of claims to have investigated some 80-90 "theft" claims and also found absolutely all of them to be bogus--the inventor simply did not realize they were inventing into a very crowded art or just what that meant.


© Copyright 2002-2007 James E. White, All Rights Reserved

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