Client Query: Can I Protect An Idea? (Probably Not.)

“Client Query” is a brief segment in which a common client question is broken down and answered. This month: the misconceptions surrounding whether you can protect an idea.

Why You Probably Can’t Protect an Idea

You may be familiar with an incubator or investment group that, as a policy,  does not sign non-disclosure agreements. Or maybe you’ve heard the phrase “ideas are a dime a dozen.” No offense to creative ideas everywhere, but it’s true. An idea alone is not protectable. Take my favorite example of an idea, for instance:

I have an idea for a taxi-on-demand service. People will be able to use a mobile app to request a car to their exact location. The drives of these “taxis” will be ordinary folks that can sign up to be drivers, and they’ll get a percentage of every fare.

Does this idea sound familiar? It should. It’s the idea on which both Uber and Lyft are based. How is it that both of these companies coexist when they are based on the same basic idea? Because the idea alone is not protectable. The same goes for “I have an idea for a television show about the lives of the doctors that work at a hospital” (how many doctor/hospital dramas can you name?), or “I have an idea for a social network.”

So What Is Protectable?

There are elements of an idea that are protectable. Take Uber and Lyft again: same idea, but different execution. The differences between the two ideas lie in:

  • Their brand names and logos (trademarks),
  • Colors (trade dress),
  • The code behind each mobile app (which fall under copyright or, sometimes, patent territory), and
  • The systems and processes they put in place (which may qualify as trade secrets).

In other words, it’s the different, specific elements of an idea that are protectable.

The Point: An idea alone is likely not protectable. Flesh that idea out and break it down into elements. At that point, it’s probably necessary to put some proactive intellectual property protection in place!