They say ideas are a dime a dozen. Perhaps, these days, startups are too, without meaning to disparage anyone. However, most geniuses aren’t contemporaneously rich – they need to sell their ideas to moneyed backers so the ideas can be given wings and take flight.
The most pressing concern for the great majority of geniuses pitching for funding is “How Can I Prevent These Moneybags From Telling Me ‘Sod Off’ And Yet Steal My Idea?”
Well, the thing with ideas is, intellectual property doesn’t protect the mere idea per se – it protects the expression of the idea.
In other words, the idea you have in your head, which you only express in a conversation, is not eligible for protection. You need to “fix” the ideas onto a definite medium (for copyright to apply) or register your trademark (for our logo to be protected) or describe and register your invention or invented process (for patent to apply). The idea has to be tangible.
Can you sue someone who steals your startup idea? The movie The Social Network suggests so but it does not seem that this has been tested by Nigerian law yet. Technically, yes, intellectual property law exists to protect the fruit of one’s mental labour. However, the rules for establishing infringement mean that it isn’t merely a matter of saying you had a conversation and the person ran with your idea – the extent to which your idea was copied (or designed around) is also a factor.
This notwithstanding, it is worthwhile and even advisable to take a few precautions before making pitches. Here are a few:
Confidentiality and Non-Disclosure Agreements: If you can get your would-be billionaire benefactor to sign one (this can be tricky when you’re literally dying for cash), this is the very first step that should be taken before any snippets of the proposal are discussed.
The agreement defines confidential information, stipulates how either party treats such information and the consequences for breach. If the financier tries to use your idea afterwards, without giving you credit, he is going to need to prove that his plans were already in motion before you met. If your idea is unique enough, a non-disclosure agreement will be very useful.
Affidavits: While you will probably need to pay a lawyer to draft an NDA, you can go to court and swear to an affidavit for much less. This is particularly useful, if you are going to be discussing, say, illustrations or designs, and haven’t had a chance to register them yet (or perhaps, registration with the Federal industrial designs registry does not apply).
Your affidavit can simply state that you intend to discuss the project with the financier and that a copy of the designs you are going to discuss are attached as exhibits to the affidavit. This way, it is clear that the designs were your creation as of the date of the affidavit. This would also apply to the concept for, say, TV game shows (the type of pitch that I’m asked the most about).
Register Eligible Property: This is a more long-term view than the foregoing. Chances are, your ideas come thick and fast and you file some away for retrieval a year or two from now. If it’s an invention, script or logo, there’s no harm in obtaining registrations for them as soon as you’re able to afford it. It happens on Dragon’s Den all the time – the first question the Dragons ask is “Do you have a patent for it?” More than securing you for the future, it also shows that you believe enough in your invention to spend some of your own money on it.
Take Steps Towards The Goal: It is easier to prove that an idea was originally yours if you’ve started putting a team together to make the idea work. The lawyer or accountant or graphics artist or branding/production company that you have preliminary discussions with and the documents you exchange with them in furtherance of the project will go a fair way in proving the concept is yours.
Of course, you’ll need money to bring a legal action against the person that has stolen your idea and I don’t know how many investors would invest in a lawsuit. Hopefully, this last paragraph is not a dampener.