I know how the creative mind works: when you have a brainstorm, you know your idea is unique and brilliant. It probably is, but know this: many people have brilliant ideas, and they may have even had the same one as you, on the very same day!
You may think that someone has stolen your idea, but it may not be so. After all, an idea is not copyrightable—you can only copyright a tangible rendition of your idea. And here is where your idea is guaranteed to be different than all other similar ideas—in the form you develop from your initial idea.
Let me give you an example: when I was writing my first book, I was asked what made my book on creativity different from all other books on creativity—certainly not the idea to write about creativity! What made it unique was the premise: in my book, Parallel Mind, The Art of Creativity, I documented the process of creativity from the standpoint of a visual artist. The other books at the time were written by psychologists or writers, but not by a right-brain visual artist. However, the book wasn’t copyrightable until I had written it. The words are copyrightable, not the idea or even the premise. What is copyrightable is the tangible form of the book: the title and the words, all of which are copyrightable.
Many creative people worry excessively about creative ownership. Most of these people are in the idea stage, where their project is most vulnerable, but also not developed to the point where they can show someone a material “proof of concept.” Most ideas are simply not unique enough to worry about protecting them.
Another way of judging how far you should go to protect your creative project is trying to look objectively at whether this idea has the potential to make a great deal of money. Most books don’t fall into that category, even bestselling ones (unless you happen to be the next JD Knight!) Even so, books are arguably the easiest and cheapest to protect. Your book is probably safe by registering the copyright, or, even better, with a unique ISBN.
Now, if you are creating a piece of software that is intended to trump the technological world, you should be aware that no matter what you do, you are at the mercy of some rather rapacious competition. The field of technology is rife with examples of stolen ideas and businesses by the big name players. There is little you can do, even if you copyright, patent, and trademark your work, because they have the money to fight legal battles and you don’t. I have heard cases of the creative property of individuals stolen by Microsoft and Disney, for example. The creators were not able to even contest their cases.
One of the potential issues in creative coaching centers around creative ownership. Let’s say you have an idea to create a game. The form of the game is what is copyrightable; meaning that unless you develop the game into a material form, you cannot claim ownership. If you mention your idea to another individual, you have a chance that they may “steal” your idea. The other way this regrettable but often unavoidable thing happens is when two people think of the same idea at the same time. Then they happen to meet or publish their book, game, product at the same time. This happened to Darwin—there he was, sailing around the Pacific, out of communication for years at a time with his own culture, while another eminent scientist was developing a theory that was very similar. Did Darwin steal his ideas from his colleague? Ideas are not copyrightable for a good reason—there are so many of them and they often occur to many people at the same time!
The only way to protect an idea is to develop it and keep a paper trail on your communications. You may want to patent or trademark your idea but both forms of “proofs” require that you develop your idea in a tangible way that provides “proof of ownership” that you can then register.
I don’t sign non-disclosure agreements because ideas are not copyrightable, so I request that creative coaching/consulting clients come to me with only developed ideas. An undeveloped idea is like a secret—if you don’t want anyone to know, then don’t tell anyone, and you won’t have to worry. If you have any concern regarding ownership, then don’t expose your idea to anyone before it is developed!
That said, most ideas are not really this delicate—I have encountered many creative people whose ideas are not vulnerable to this kind of problem, simply because it isn’t profitable enough to steal it AND then have to develop it, or because the field they are in isn’t as rapacious as technology.
Should you copyright, trademark, or patent? Which is which?