How To Protect Your Startup Ideas

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.

Photo Credit: Libby Arnold via Compfight cc


  • Mark Essien says:

    Because you have an idea first, does this mean you get to sit on the idea forever and nobody else has the opportunity to execute it? If you want to protect an idea, keep it at idea stage when you tell people. A concept will be discovered by so many people. The difference are the multiple ideas that come when executing. An “idea”, when well executed, probably has 100 sub-ideas. Don’t talk about those sub-ideas, and nobody will execute as well as you can. Alternatively, if you tell someone the concept and he has better sub-ideas, he will execute better than you, and he would have anyways.

  • Useful post. I think the biggest takeaway, especially for the JJC entrepreneur, is that ideas are up for grabs by anyone, and that they need to be more deliberate and circumspect about how they relate to would-be partners in that regard.

    About non disclosure agreements though, I’d like to amplify that caveat about getting rich billionaires to sign, they almost certainly won’t. Investors generally spit at NDAs unless you are Elon Musk or Sim Shagaya —  they won’t even bother to listen to the pitch. If it is still merely in your head, no MVP, they probably don’t want to listen to you in the first place. Or if it’s the coolest invention since post-it-notes, they’d expect that you’d have patented it. Still it is very useful information it cannot hurt entrepreneurs to have for the one in a thousand cases when it might actually come in handy. But as far as I can see, this is not a card one wants to play often. 

    The best way to protect your idea in one word? Execute. JFDI and pull away before fast followers catch on or up. Godspeed.

  • Rotimi Fawole says:

    Seen the first two comments, want to elaborate a little:

    If it’s a bare skinned idea, you don’t have anything worth protecting. If it’s a concept (especially one that isn’t particularly unique) I think the suggestion has already been made that, at the very worst, it can be designed around. But there’s a reason why Simon Cowell settled the lawsuit with Nigel Lithgoe when he left Idols to start X-Factor (which adopted large chunks of the Idols template).

    Finally, even when you have registrable IP and do register, nothing precludes others from using other means to achieve the same result as you.

  • @RichardAfolabi says:

    “If you go to VC with a brilliant idea that you’ll tell them about if they sign a nondisclosure agreement, most will tell you to get lost. That shows how much a mere idea is worth. The market price is less than the inconvenience of signing an NDA.” – Paul Graham.

    Ideas are like birds. They’ve got wings and can fly… and oh… they sure do fly. Best is, catch one and cage it, lock it down as fast as you can… by executing.

  • Very useful and interesting post, although I am not sure how feasible getting billionaires and VCs to sign NDAs except they raise it themselves. Often times at the stage when you start talking to VCs you are still trying to get someone to believe in your dream/back you plus you need advice from what they know already and NDAs are the least of your worries

    I once left a job the day I had 20 “incredible” start up ideas, but months later after talks with different would-be investors i decided I wasn’t ready for execution yet and decided it was time to go back to corporate work.

    Those ideas are still in my notepad somewhere with sub-ideas being birthed from different projects I have worked on so far.

    As an entrepreneur, execution is a very critical stage. a suggestion I have given a couple of friends having problems at execution stage is to fine tune the idea and sell the idea. Sometimes the idea birth-er is not the best executor.

  • Abiola Omoniyi says:

    protect what idea.. the one hundreds of thousands or even millions of people are already thinking and/or executing? na I don’t like this article.. I think such thinking (protecting your ideas) takes us backwards not forwards and does not help the naija startup scene at all

  • Anon says:

    You only need this when you’re invited by ROCKET INTERNET. I mean tha facking Zalorians!

    For more info, ask tha Tranzit nigga, Rodney Jackson Cole!

    BTW: Been a long time I checked this site, Bankole, nice jab nigga!

  • ayo Dawodu ♛ says:

    Why protect.. ? They are like rain; and are cheap too.
    Execution is everything.
    On the contrary.. get an idea and start telling everyone…bounce it off.. I’m sure you would be amazed about 2 things:
    1. 4 of the people you tell are thinking same. Maybe not 4
    2. How much learning you would get as feedback.

    Useful piece all the same.

  • Isola-Osobu Jerome Adejuwon says:

    The best way to protect your idea is to execute. Ideas are a dime a dozen. The fact that you have been able to build something would even create more interest for your prospective investor.

  • Ezeani says:

    After reading the post and the comments, I believe @Rotimi is making a case on how to protect your intellectual property (prototypes, algorithms, schematic drawings, etc) not the idea itself. As many have related pointed out, the idea in and of itself is essentially worthless. Your best bet when it comes to ideas is to start executing on them up till the point you have an MVP or have made tangible progress that is protectable (and you have already protected) before you start putting it out there. There is a reason most companies restrict access to their R&D folks and why the likes of Pepsi has their formulas in a vault that will make the US Mint green with envy!

    I read a post on CNN yesterday which exemplifies this. A 35 year old biomedical engineer spent the last 10 years of his life building an artificial heart. When he got to a point of comfort with his working prototype he took it to a team of specialists in Texas who can help him refine and possibly commercialize the product. I will like to believe that the IP from 10 years of research was protected in the form of patents before he approached the folks.

    Here’s an excerpt from the article:

    Two years ago, Daniel Timms, a 35-year-old Australian biomedical engineer, made an Australian government funded trip to Houston, stumbling through the door of Cohn’s office at the Texas Heart Institute. Timms was wearing blue jeans and a T-shirt and carrying a heart device he had been working on for the past 10 years in his backpack.
    Cohn was skeptical at first: “A lot of people come to our door with devices and prototypes, and they range from moderately interesting to laughably stupid. … My expectations were very low. He pulls this thing out and starts telling me about it, and I quickly realized this is the most sophisticated and elegant device I’ve ever seen.”

    You can read the rest of it here:

  • Uduak says:

    If you need to protect your idea so much, then it’s nothing special. The thought process for innovation is really deep and can’t be recreated by a simple presentation.

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