Steve Jobs famously denounced the “disease” of thinking that a great idea is 90% of the work of innovation. He emphasized execution and craftsmanship as what makes the difference between a great product and a mediocre one. But the fact is that if someone takes your idea and beats you on execution, you’re at a major disadvantage.
Protecting your app idea is challenging. Copyright law only protects the physical and intellectual assets of the work itself — not the concept. Patents offer more robust protection than copyright. But they require than an idea meet certain criteria, and they’re expensive to obtain (between $8k-$15k). One of these criteria is that the idea not use any “methods or processes for producing a useful, concrete, and tangible result” of an idea previously patented, published, or used. In other words, your idea must be fundamentally different from all other apps.
If your app idea is truly unique, a patent could be a good option for you. Consider filing for a provisional patent, which will protect your idea before you fully build the product. A provisional patent will hold your filing date. This is important, since patents are issued in order of who filed first. Provisional patents are also less expensive than nonprovisional patents. The application for a provisional patent requires a detailed description of the invention, with drawings, flow charts, and illustrations of how the app will work.
A non-disclosure agreement (NDA) will legally prevent anyone who signs it from reusing your idea or sharing your idea with anyone else. It specifies that the signer will keep any information you share private and that your intellectual property will remain yours. Keep in mind that investors will be hesitant to sign an NDA without first having at least a basic understanding of what it involves. While NDAs offer some protection, it’s best to be sure you’re working with reputable companies and people you trust. Look to a source like LegalZoom for NDA templates.
Contracts and Agreements
Any developer you choose will own the app’s design until you’ve paid for the work completed. But a simple written agreement can ensure that your idea is protected at the same time the intellectual property of the developer is also protected. Be sure that your contract with the development company specifies when copyright transfers to you and includes language to protect your idea.
Don’t forget to trademark your app’s name! While a trademark won’t protect your idea, it will protect your brand name. Without a trademark, other developers can use the same name, creating confusion for prospective users. You’ll need to file a trademark application after you form your business entity.
Although legal protection is helpful, you’ll be required to spend lots of time researching, documenting, and dealing with court proceedings if you ever need to defend your idea from infringement. The best way to protect your idea is to be selective with who you share it with. Only share the details with people you trust. Look at their reputations, talk to their clients and former clients, and be sure that you feel confident in their approach.
Document Your Process
Finally, if you ever do need to defend your idea in court, you’ll need a history of how your idea was developed. Document your brainstorming sessions, who you shared your idea with, meeting agendas, preliminary illustrations or flowcharts, emails and messages, etc. Having a written record of your idea’s development will help prove that you’re not the one who’s the copycat.
While protecting you idea is important, remember that execution really is 90% of an app’s success. If you can shape your your idea to fit a significant hole in the market and create a quality product that’s easy to use, you’ll be ahead of anyone who takes your idea and throws something together quickly to beat you to market. Do everything you can to protect your idea, but then focus on exceptional execution.
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