What to Do When Someone Steals Your Ideas

By Michelle Kaminsky

What to Do When Someone Steals Your Ideas

By Michelle Kaminsky

You've worked hard coming up with what you believe to be a brilliant idea, but then you find that someone has stolen it right from under you. What you do next depends on several factors, including the type of idea, what kind of potential intellectual property protection it may have, and what steps you have already taken to protect it.

First, in order for an idea to receive legal protection as intellectual property, it must be fixed in a tangible medium. If you have only thought about the idea, you don't have any legal recourse if someone else uses—or, perhaps in your mind, “steals"— it. The type of idea will determine whether it may enjoy copyright, trademark, patent, or trade-secret protection.

Copyright Protection

Copyright protection attaches to an idea the moment it is fixed in a tangible medium, for instance jotting down song lyrics on a piece of paper. At that point, the idea becomes a protected work with certain rights conveyed to the owner. Whether you file a copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office or not, your copyright attaches to the work. Types of works that are eligible for copyright protection include “literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic," such as “poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture," according to the Copyright Office.

If you suspect someone has infringed on your copyright, you can send a cease and desist letter, informing them of your rights, demanding them to stop infringing, and putting them on notice that further acts of infringement could result in legal action. If the infringer complies, you can move on with your life. If they don't, you may have to consider legal action to get them to stop.

If your copyright was not registered with the Copyright Office at the time of infringement, you must show actual damages, such as profit loss, to prevail in court. If your copyright was registered with the Copyright Office at the time of infringement or within three months of publication of the work, you may seek up to $150,000 per act of willful infringement.

Trademark Protection

A trademark protects a word, phrase, or mark that identifies the source of goods or services. You may be able to enforce your trademark rights in the state in which you do business if you can show that you used the work or mark in commerce to identify similar goods or services in the same state before the alleged infringer did so.

To enforce your trademark across the country, you must register the word, phrase, or mark with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). This action puts others on notice that you are the owner, and you can pursue legal action against infringers.

Patent Protection

A patent from the USPTO protects your rights as an inventor. If you already hold a patent to an invention and you believe someone has stolen it, you may file a patent-infringement lawsuit to get them to stop using it and pursue compensatory and/or punitive damages.

It is important to note that as of 2013 with the America Invents Act, the U.S. operates on a “first to file" system, which means that it is usually advisable to file your patent as soon as is practically possible. Otherwise you risk losing out to someone “stealing" your idea by filing their patent first.

Trade Secrets Protection

The classic example of a trade secret is the recipe for Coca-Cola, though trade secrets can be any proprietary information that gives a business a competitive advantage but that isn't afforded protection by a patent, trademark, or copyright. The most important aspect of protecting your trade secrets is taking reasonable efforts to keep them secret.

If you believe someone has stolen your idea, you may sue them. A court may grant an injunction to stop them from using or disclosing it or award you compensatory and/or punitive damages. Egregious cases could bring criminal charges.

While many instances of stolen ideas can be handled amicably among private parties, sometimes infringers won't cooperate. In this instance, it is best to get legal advice on how best to handle the situation and reclaim your rights.

This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.

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