Can I sue someone for stealing my idea?

A lawsuit is a 4-way race. There are two attorneys, and the two litigants. The lawyers come in first and second, and the only real uncertainty in this contest is finding out who comes in last. A successful lawsuit from the point of view of the lawyers is a long, protracted battle on paper that drains both sides more or less equally. If you have the luxury of a large cash position, and are in no particular hurry, a lawsuit is a wonderful way to drain the finances and pin down your opponent. Note that in most cases lawsuits only benefit large corporations, who can easily absorb the costs of litigation when compared to their immense cash flows, while for an individual a lawsuit is a great burden. So assuming you are the solo entrepreneur, litigation is out of the question.

The sad truth is that the inventors and discovers of immensely important inventions like the laser beam, transistor, radio, etc. rarely have benefited in history. It is quite rare that scientific invention, and engineering breakthroughs generate riches for the actual inventor or discoverer. We see a lot of millionaire movie stars and athletes and salespeople. They are paid fantastic sums, while the people who create the breakthroughs of society often toil away in a startup that fails, but the idea was sound, and gradually gets adopted widely and the world benefits. This is life as it is in our century. Maybe someday athletes won’t be so highly prized, and idea people will get more recognition and reward. It not happening any time soon, in fact the recent record setting $200 million for 5 year contract for a basketball player shows that athletics are gaining ground, and VC firms seem to get the majority of the money in startups, usually more than the founders.

In today’s world, showing people your idea comes with the risk of it leaking out. The investors you visit and demo to, may have already invested in a similar project but it lacks some of your ideas, and you can expect that whatever materials you give to anyone will be distributed. As my friend Paul says, a secret is a piece of information you tell one person at a time. Avoid showing people your inner secrets, it is too risky. Who wants to be around that grumpy, bitter, person who experienced idea theft. Some people only have one or two good ideas in their whole life. So treat them like golden inspiration, and do your best to refine the idea so that it can be commercially successful.  That may mean bringing in a partner who has no technical expertise, but knows how to sell. Many companies are based on a pair of complementary people like Wozniak and Jobs, or Roy Disney and Walt Disney. But also keep in mind that ideas are born of the time, and when Alexander Graham Bell was in the patent office in Washington, DC submitting his telephone, there were people right next to him in line with almost the same idea! Numerous times in history the same product has been invented at around the same time in different countries. The reason Edison was the greatest inventor of all time, is because he was developing products at the very moment electricity and modern technology came into being. So he could put together all these combinations of sub-technologies that together created the phonograph, or the movie projector, etc. So don’t wait too long on your idea. The tide waits for no man, and your idea might not be useful in 5 years. Sometimes you have to be willing to drop everything else to get your idea done faster. This is the exciting, risky world of invention we are talking about. Not for the faint of heart!