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How to Protect a Business Idea

by Milton Zlotnick

We are often asked by clients how to protect their ideas. The best way, of course, is to keep them secret. Any facetiousness aside, it is a sincere recommendation. Often people talk about their ideas to brag, to brain storm, and to make themselves feel as if they are adding to discussions. These are not good reasons to disclose information you want kept confidential. However, barring total secrecy, having a Confidentiality Agreement can help protect your ideas.

When to Disclose Information: Disclose information in increasing amounts as the deal progresses. Be sure that the balance of power in the deal remains relatively even in terms of oral commitments, commitments through information disclosure, money or contracts. The information disclosure should start with general concepts and progress to detail at the contract stage. Be sure to keep careful notes on what, when and where information was disclosed and who else was present at the meetings. These records can be extremely helpful if you ever end up in court.

Always disclose the minimum necessary to close the deal, without being fraudulent or misleading. This allows you maintain the most control over your product or idea, as well as protecting your options for changing the timeline or details later if needed. Once the deal is closed and the contract is signed, both parties should be more committed to the process and protecting information.

However, saying the minimum needed does not mean withholding material information that substantially affects the deal. For example, if your idea requires regulatory approval, does not have it, and no one brings this up, it would be wiser to disclose this up front rather than to wait for this bomb to blow up after the deal has progressed. If a party feels angry or mislead then trust is broken, and, contract or not, it will be hard to proceed productively.

Consider who you are talking to about your product or information. Is the party a competitor who would greatly benefit from the stealing the idea or product, a customer who will be helped by the idea or product, or a partner whose own business would be complemented by your success? The other party’s interests should always be kept in mind. Also, be aware of who at the company you are dealing with. Dealing with the CEO is entirely different than dealing with a programmer or sales person. Remember to also consider the employee’s personal interests in having the information. For example, the head of product of development might think she would get a promotion if she presented your idea to the company as her own for a new product line. Risks of Exchanging Information: Confidentiality agreements can help protect the parties both receiving and disclosing information and are available as legal forms.

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A surprising fact is that the party receiving information is often taking a greater risk than the party disclosing information. A good example of this risk is a movie studio. Script writers are dismayed to discover that studios not only refuse to sign a confidentiality agreement, but typically make the submitter sign an agreement stating that if the studio later develops something that looks like his or her idea, the submitter agrees not to challenge this.

Studios are in the business of coming up with ideas and making them into movies. Every time the studio receiving a script or a pitch, it is receiving an idea. If a studio were to agree to keep this information confidential and that the submitter owned the idea, the studio would be subjecting itself to potential law suits for every idea submitted, even those already developed by employees who have never seen or heard of the submission. In court, the studio would have the burden of showing that despite the receipt of the submission, its employees who developed the similar idea never saw or received any information from the submission. This would be virtually impossible for the studio to prove and costly when multiplied by the huge number of submissions received. For studios, venture capitalists and other groups that work with large numbers of ideas, it may simply be too risky for them to sign a confidentiality agreement. Remember that in these circumstances you are usually the less powerful party and thus the other side forces you to assume more risk. Be sensitive to these considerations when you are disclosing to a competitor, by signing the confidentiality agreement you present, a competitor is risking litigation from you even if it already knows, or has in development, what you are about to tell them.

For the disclosing party, the risks can also be great.The disclosing party risks (a) disclosure of such information to its competitors; (b) disclosure of the information to the public; and/or (c) use of such information to compete or gain market advantage against the disclosing party.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Sean Larabee March 20, 2010 at 11:46 am

Why would a screenwriter need a Confidentiality Agreement if the have already copyrighted and registered the script with the WGA?

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