How to protect an idea that's easy to steal

Jaime Arredondo
June 28, 2022

The iPhone got “stolen” by Android. Sonos got allegedly stolen by Amazon and Google. And we can find fifty chinese companies selling the same chargers on Amazon, which means they pretty much all “steal” from each others’ designs. And more recently the  Internet Archive opened a National Emergency Library with 1.4 million uncopyrighted books, and although most books are from last century, this has infuriated many authors who can still claim the copyright on their books and have found their books shared without their consent.

And now here we are, yearning to create change with our ideas. But discouraged to innovate. It’s scary to put so much effort, time and money into making something that might be pulled under our feet in this world where the innovation pace is going so fast.

Lately, I’ve been talking with some impact entrepreneurs, creating construction materials that don’t pollute. Or using groundbreaking techniques to save huge amounts of energy to create cooling.  Or even making cheap and reliable filters that clean water in polluted parts of the world. And the main protection they can think for their ideas is to use patents and copyright.

And here’s the catch. Even if we patent or copyright our ideas, it takes a lot of time and money to sue anyone who copies you. In fact, Sonos, which has a lot more money than most companies, is just suing Google and not Amazon because it would be too risky to sue both.

And holding onto patents will not prevent others from innovating over your inventions, as Kodak demonstrated with its bankruptcy.

So how can we solve this paradox? My thesis is that there is a solution, but it requires updating our worldview. 

This will sound counterintuitive, but the best way to protect an idea now, might be to actually share it with others. Bear with me.

Piracy is not your enemy 

If you’re doing something that hasn’t been made before, most of the time your enemy is not piracy. Your enemy is obscurity (this has been shamelessly stolen from Tim O’reilly by the way).

It takes more than an idea to make a business work.

To create a thriving business we'd need to find and gather an audience through marketing, develop distribution, hire and manage staff to put systems and operations in place, find funding and handle the cash so that the business can pay everyone to keep doing what they’re supposed to do.

So even if someone steals your idea, they still have to steal the other pieces of the puzzle.

And assuming you're an unknown innovators starting a new project, you have two more fundamental problems that go beyond competition.

First, nobody is aware of what you’re doing.

And second, nobody trusts that you are able to solve their problems, because they don’t know you and your ideas enough. And if you can’t be trusted, then you can’t create value. And people will still go to the competition, even if their solutions are worse.

If people stole your ideas, these two problems could go away.

You’d now be getting people to come for more ideas to steal. And if you invited them to participate, some would even come to contribute to what you’re doing instead of starting from scratch.

TED spreads around the world thanks to its TEDx organizers and translators stealing their content conveniently and giving it back even better.

Wordpress powers 35% of the internet thanks to developers who create more plugins and themes on top of their free solution they can freely steal.

Sparkfun, Arduino and Adafruit get unsolicited tutorials and use cases made by their DIY fans. And this fuels new demand for their electronic products.

Seth Godin gets people to steal and spread his free blogs posts and podcasts, and this drives new audiences to join his mailing list, join his courses or buy his books, but in return, his readers and students also spread the work, contribute and moderate the communities of students he has set up in his Akimbo courses.

Lego Ideas has gathered almost 1 million members who submit ideas for new Lego sets (many of which get produced and sold), but also provide support on their forums, and participate in contests.

Ikea almost shut down IkeaHackers, a fan page that gives new design ideas to enhance their furniture, and which is driving tons of sales and brand awareness for Ikea.

These brands are now household names, but when they started most people didn’t know about them, and it was the giving away of their ideas that became their unfair advantage to spread and get the collaboration of others.

But what about Cut Throat industries?

However, it’s true that some fields demand lots of work to make an idea take off. And little time goes by before its stolen. If that’s the case, you might want to consider changing fields.

For example, anything that can be copied in a factory in Shenzhen in China and sold on Alibaba or Amazon will be. If you’ve been developing a new kind of hoverboard or groundbreaking selfie stick, chances are that somebody found the Kickstarter campaign, figured how to copycat it and delivered it before the original on Alibaba. 

And now there is a race to the bottom from copycats, all selling their widget for a penny less than the previous one. And if you’re the one who invested all that time, money and effort, it’s very likely you’re never going to see it back.

No amount of patents will protect you since there is no patent enforcement against most copycats, and there is a very low chance you’ll be able to change that industry.  So consider getting out into an industry where you can make it work. 

One where your marketing and branding can make a difference, like GoPro in the photography industry. Or where your idea requires sophisticated manufacturing know-how or tools, so that the average factory wouldn’t bother trying to copy it. 

What is the new unfair advantage beyond Intellectual Property?

If you can’t outcompete or lock out organisations with cheaper and faster manufacturing or distribution, hiding and protecting an idea won’t help when launch time comes. 

It might be easier to go to the extreme opposite and create something the copycats can’t copy: a connected community of contributors who will help you innovate and spread faster. 

We used to think of entrepreneurship like a heroic journey where one had to save the world on his or her own, thinking of everything, hiring and managing the best teams, finding star investors and growing the company to save the day.

But there might be an easier and more fun way if we start thinking about it more like a potluck where the host creates an opportunity to gather, and where friends each bring the food and drinks.

So how can you start inviting others to your idea party? Here are a few questions that might help:

Who is interested in copying or accessing your idea? Would their participation help develop and spread your idea and impact faster and more cheaply?

What’s in it for them? Could they get visibility on your platform? Maybe learn a new skill or technology? Or even contributing to something that’s important for them?

And how will you make money to fund the party? Will you sell physical products like Lego or Ikea? Software as a service like Wordpress? Courses, speaking gigs or books like Seth Godin? Ads or Tickets like TED?

Preventing others from stealing your work might be hurting your chances of it working.

I hope you can see a new way to create the impact you seek to make. A way where you can invite others to contribute, enrich and spread your idea so we can help you make it even better.

Photo by Ricardo Resende on Unsplash

Written by:
Jaime Arredondo
Creator at Bold & Open. Deconstructing how to turn radical ideas into transformative impact.

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