I stumbled over a great Q&A over at Quora. Someone asked about what to do with their great ideas and inventions so that they won’t get cheated. I’ve decided to reproduce the question here and the answer by Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, as I often get asked the same question but in many different ways.
If I invent something which has a chance of earning billions if brought to market, what should I do to prevent others from cheating me out of what I deserve?
History is full of people who killed themselves after inventing something legen-wait for it-dary because they found out they earned much much less for it than what they actually deserved. Suppose I invent something great, what should be my plan of action to earn as much as I can and gain proper recognition for my invention.
Jimmy’s (almost legendary) answer:
Before I answer your question directly (and I promise I will) let me just offer the opinion that young entrepreneurs often think this is a real problem which faces them, when in fact the opposite problem is much much much more likely to be the case: far from other people seeing your thing as “legen-wait for it-dary” as you put it :-), no one will care about you or your idea at all.
Notice that this is more true the more paranoid you are about it. Just a few days ago I got a 3 page pitch letter from someone who simply described to me in stereotypical buzzwords how I could add synergistic brand value to their revolutionary value-add concept that would blah blah blah – 3 pages with absolutely no information whatsoever about what the hell the person wants to do.
I remember when I first had the idea for a freely licensed encyclopedia written by volunteers. I remember a feeling of urgency and panic because the idea seemed so obvious that I thought lots of people would be competing with me, so I rushed out and hired Larry Sanger to work for me as editor in chief of the project, and we launched Nupedia as quickly as possible. Nearly two years later, with the project generally unsuccessful at that point, no one else was competing with us at all. My panic about someone rushing to compete with me was not justified.
Now, to answer your question directly because, despite my view that in general this isn’t really the problem that you face, sometimes it is, and it’s worth a few words about that.
First, if your idea is the sort of thing that could be reasonably patented, then you can work to file a patent. I’m not a big believer in this for most things (particularly not software or dot-com ideas, where I find patents to be useless for protecting startups and pernicious for the industry as a whole), but if your legendary concept is a genuine scientific/engineering invention, then by all means, get a patent.
Second, and I’m stealing this line from Facebook (probably Mark Zuckerberg said it first, I don’t know): Move fast and break things. This is particularly important if there are “network externalities” in your idea, or any other kind of genuine “first mover advantage”. (Though notice: both those concepts are much much much overused.)
Just get moving and don’t look back.
Ok, so that is my direct answer, but now I want to go back and remind you of my first answer. THIS IS PROBABLY NOT THE PROBLEM THAT YOU REALLY HAVE. Far far more entrepreneurs have lost out on great opportunities because they were so paranoid about someone stealing their idea that they were unable to raise capital, unable to get started, unable to actually DO anything.
I would also like to add that ideas are cheap, it’s the execution that counts. The world is filled with great ideas, many of which are similar. It’s what you do with it that really matters. So go DO something today, no matter how small!