How to protect your ideas in the digital age is actually not that different from what you would have done pre-internet. The main difference now is the speed at which your idea can be shared with the rest of the world if you don’t do something about protecting it.
Consider how quickly an image, video, joke, quote or game can go viral. Think “Angry Birds”. That simple game was a side project for a development team. Something they worked on as a break from their “real work”. Once it was released, it didn’t take long before everyone on public transport was playing it on their mobile phones, and more besides.
There are legal options and technical options, but what if you don’t know how? To protect your ideas in the digital age you have access to some amazing technologies. There is a variety of technological work-arounds and software that allow you to upload documents, images and other files that can be viewed, but not copied, screen shot, printed or downloaded by the viewer. The viewer has to come back to your website to look at that content whenever they want to see it. Academic publishers use this with their online materials. You might be able to work around it, but most people are not that technical and wouldn’t bother trying. Better still, you can make it password protected so that anyone who wants to see it tells you who they are. There is other software that allows you to track when they login and whether or not it is from the same computer, or a variety of computers, so that you can lock out people who share their password around.
From the legal perspective you should know the first step on how to protect your ideas in the digital age, NOT share them on social media! It really is amazing what people think they can post and still keep a secret. Please, assume that the whole world will know about it in about 10 minutes flat if you post it on social media, especially if it captures the imagination of a lot of people. Think of “Shit my Dad says” and how quickly that got picked up. Anyway, back to the legal side… patents, trademarks, copyright and designs aren’t going to cut it for you unless you have the prerequisites covered, and besides which, those processes are potentially too slow; especially if you are just bursting to share this great idea.
To do it legally, you need to think about confidentiality and non-circumvention. They are different concepts.
Confidentiality agreements, or non-disclosure agreements, usually require the person or entity you are sharing ideas with to act in compliance with the terms of the agreement – that means not sharing your idea with all and sundry. On the other hand, a non-circumvention agreement says that the person or entity you are sharing the idea with will not “cut you out” of any deal they do to turn your idea into money. The benefit of the non-circumvention agreement is that you can chase them for whatever money they collect if they entered into that agreement before you shared your idea.
Heads up though – be careful who you identify as the person or entity you are sharing your idea with. If it is an employee in a business, whether a app development company or a bank, make sure it covers them personally and in their capacity as an employee and everyone in the entity they work for. You don’t want to lose out on your pay day just because they side-step who is responsible.