If you are really worried and want to know how to protect your ideas from being stolen, you probably don’t know how common ideas are and how little value they have before anyone takes action to turn your idea into reality.
Seriously, most people are too busy to steal your idea. Even if they hear it and they like it, they probably won’t have the same level of energy you do around the whole thing and never actually do anything about it. Consider this, Thomas Edison is quoted as saying “I have not failed, I only found 10,000 ways that did not work” when talking about the development of a commercially producible light bulb. The light bulb wasn’t an original idea; there were quite a few people working on it.
What Edison did that was different was to create a light bulb that lasted for a reasonable period of time (1,200 usage hours) and that was cheap enough to produce to create a mass market. It took a lot of time and dedicated effort. No doubt Edison shared his idea for a commercially producible light bulb with his family, colleagues and eventual investors. The fact that it was an idea he was working on didn’t mean that others weren’t doing the same thing; and they were doing it without having stolen his idea. Edison did protect his design, after he had developed it, by filing a patent. Consider that in that day and age they were still using paper letters and horse’s and carts to get around; so registering a patent was feasible and not as time sensitive a protection is today.
Ok, back to the topic – how to protect your ideas from being stolen. What exactly does “stolen” mean to you? Are you thinking about someone else getting the credit for a great idea, like Napstar (watch the 2003 version of the Italian Job) or turning your throw-away idea over dinner “it would be so great to have my files backed up somewhere I can share them and get at them easily in case my computer crashes…” into the next big thing, like Dropbox?
If you are worried about credit, without there being any identifiable value to your idea, then confidentiality is probably what you are looking for. That is stopping someone else from sharing what you tell them with a whole bunch of other people, or worse, online. There have been a number of supposedly private email exchanges that have gone viral because someone thought the content was funny. Think of all those emails of co-workers talking about who pinched someone’s lunch from the lunch room! A Non-disclosure or confidentiality agreement asks the person signing it to keep confidential the information that you share with them. This should bind them personally and in their capacity as an employee (if that is applicable) and cover other people in the company.
Worrying about attribution shouldn’t be your focus. What you really want to know is how to protect your ideas from being stolen if they are money making ideas. Facebook is a great example, just check out the 2010 movie The Social Network. The Winklevoss twins had an idea for an online linking site for Harvard graduates. Mark Zuckerberg took that idea, refined it and created Facebook. The Winklevoss twins sued for breach of copyright, but Zuckerberg had only adapted their idea, not the way it looked, any software, code or functionality, and he expanded it. In the end Facebook paid the Winklevoss twins to bring an end to court proceedings, not because they were able to prove any entitlement to the idea. There was no confidentiality agreement in place, and certainly no non-circumvention agreement. A non-circumvention agreement would have spelt out that any use of the Winklevoss’s idea would need their involvement if it was to be commercially developed. It certainly would have save a lot of time and money in legal fees!