How to Protect Your Ideas (and How I Stole from James Altucher)


It doesn’t happen often, but some weekends (like this one) I begin talking to my friends, to catch up with them and see what they’re doing. It has become a habit for me to lose myself in talking to my girlfriend and reading books. Talking to the friends around me is pointless. Most of the time.

However, sometimes sparks just ignite from the most pointless questions or discussions, and the idea for this post came from what we were discussing.

My friend is thinking of starting his own business (just like me). He is afraid of out-sourcing his idea, because the developer might steal it. He’s afraid of discussing it with others, because they might steal it. “True, they might offer suggestions,” he says, “but it’s not worth risking my idea. They might get rich and leave me in the dust!”

I also saw another post on my LinkedIn timeline. A user was proposing to have a website for sharing ideas. He proposed that this website then be regarded as some kind of patent directory; whatever idea was recorded in that website was rightfully the original poster’s property.

Yesterday, I saw a post on Twitter that said, “Ideas are the new currency.” No wonder then that everyone is so protective of their ideas, right?

The problem is, people regard ideas like fertile land. Whoever gets to them first wants to build up a wall around it, thinking that this piece of turf might make someone else rich. While this might be true, people who think this way forget a very simple fact: planting a seed is only the beginning. You have to gather a lot of knowledge on how to sew, how to care for your crops, and how to reap them. If you believe yourself to be a good farmer, the land plays a limited role in your results. I’m not saying it doesn’t play a role; I’m just saying it is a small role. When you’re worried of people stealing your ideas, you put a lot of your efforts and energy in protecting yourself and those ideas: you spend money for patents, you go all secretive, and you hurt yourself most of all by not discussing your ideas with others. Has it happened to you to fail at something, and discuss that failure with a group of people, only to have one of them say, “you could’ve asked me. I know all about that stuff. In fact, I’ve failed just like you.”

How does it feel? Does it burn? I can speak for myself and I can tell you that it does. Yes, it does burn. If I had been able to harness the positive energy around me instead of thinking that everyone is out to get me, I could have known of this. I could have found out about it, talked to this guy, fixed my idea, and gotten to keep all that money, reputation, time, or whatever. Instead, what did I do? I proved to myself that humans can’t get anywhere without help.

If you’re still not convinced, let’s look at this from another angle. Please, humor me and do the following. In fact, I’m going to do it along with you.

Find The Idea

If you have an idea that you want to work on, write it down now. Don’t worry, you can burn it later. If you don’t have an idea, just reach into your mind and grasp whatever you find in there. I’m going to do the same now: my idea is to have a service, a web application, that allows people to share their ideas with each other, and with entrepreneurs that are in a position to turn them into reality. They can also talk about them and improve them together. This will leave them with a better idea in the end.

Look For Similar Services

Chances are, you will find something similar. I found Edison Nation Product Search, youZingit.com, and Genius Crowds, which has apparently closed its doors in May. Wow, I didn’t know ideas were worth so much! :-)

Compare

“I found some similar services, but, my idea is a bit different!” Yes, so is mine. None of the ones I just searched seem to have sharing abilities. They are all one-sided; you submit your idea and you get paid. Mine is a bit different, though; mine encourages contributions, sharing and openness. The only service which partly shared my idea was Genius Crowds, and see what happened to it.

You’re a THIEF!

Yes, you are a thief. I am a thief. We are all thieves. You have stolen those similar ideas and have added a bit, removed a bit of useless stuff from it, and have made it your own. It is not the same as those stuff you found, but it is similar if you look hard enough. In a sense, you’ve stolen those ideas—willingly or unwillingly—and have made them more appealing. Should you stop now and go search for a different idea?

Of course not. You are doing what humans have been doing for many, many years. Ideas are rarely born from nothing; entrepreneurs are those that put things together, or find the problem that is facing a group of people, and come up with a solution to fix it. Entrepreneurs care about those they can touch, and they know that wealth will follow as a result.

Your heroes were thieves

Don’t trust me? Here are some very convincing examples.

  • Telescope. Galileo stole the telescope. He took the original invention by Hans Lippershey, made it a bit longer and more powerful and gets full credit 400 years later for the invention.

  • Telephone. Who invented the telephone? Well, Alexander Graham Bell of course? But only after the looked at the failed patent Antonio Meucci filed in 1874 (Meucci was too poor to send in the $10 patent charge. So…patent denied. Enter Bell).

  • Relativity. Einstein stole part of the theory of relativity from Poincare. Poincare published countless papers on relativity that Einstein had studied before his own first book on relativity. Einstein cited hundreds of sources but didn’t mention Poincare once. Do the research but there are several instances of direct plagiarism in his initial book on relativity.

  • Search. Google. Not quite a “steal” in the sense of the above but the entire concept of a “search engine” was dead and over by the time Google hit the scene. A company called “Oingo” came calling in 2000 or 2001. They were working on some algorithm for matching ads with web pages on search engines, or something like that. They needed funding badly. Somehow they survived, changed their name to Applied Semantics and were bought by a tiny search engine company with no revenues called Google. The Oingo algorithm became “Adsense” which accounts for 99% of Google’s revenues. The Applied Semantics deal would’ve been worth about $1bb – $2bb by now. Suffice to say, Google built on the backs of everyone from Lycos to Oingo to Altavista, etc.

  • Superman. “Captain Marvel”, which was first put out by Fawcett Comics in 1940 was of course a direct ripoff of “Superman” and yet became very successful. And Superman himself may have been a plagiarism of sorts. 5 years before the first “Superman” came out, Jerry Siegel (Superman’s creator) reviewed the book “Gladiator” about a boy growing up in rural America who had super powers. Siegel claimed in 1940 that Gladiator had not been an inspiration. He did not at that point note his 1932 review of the book.

  • Decl of Independence. Thomas Jefferson directly plagiarized John Locke when he wrote the Declaration of Independence. James Madison even admitted later: “The object was to assert, not to discover truths.”

  • Chess. Bobby Fischer learned Russian when he was 14 years old so he could steal ideas from the Russian chessplayers in the magazine “64”. He used those opening ideas to win the US Championship at the age of 15 in the mid 1950s.
  • Art. Roy Lichtenstein directly stole from the cartoon strip “True Romance” to repackage and then resell for (now) millions.

  • Star Wars. Whether you call it inspiration or plagiarism, George Lucas took ideas from everything from Taoism to Asimov’s Foundation series, to Joseph cambell, Greek Mythology, King Arthur, etc.

  • Vonnegut. Kurt Vonnegut said he “cheerfully ripped off” the plot of Brave New World for his novel, “Player Piano”- and Aldous Huxley, in turn, stole it from Eugene Zamatian’s We

  • Groupon and every other business. Almost all current successful internet businesses are the result of lifting (and improving) the ideas from past businesses. Groupon is a direct descendant of the failed Paul Allen company, Mercata (remember?). Facebook (remember Geocities? Or, heaven forbid, Tripod). And why didn’t the “World Wide Web Worm:” succeed (the first search engine that I can think of).

  • Comedy. In standup comedy, stealing (or improving on) routines has been common. Robin Williams was constantly accused of this early in his career and his reply was that he was so stream of consciousness he sometimes had no idea where the ideas were coming from (i.e., they were coming from his friends even minutes after their acts). Bill Cosby has admitted stealing some jokes from George Carlin, Rosie O’Donnell was known to borrow from Jerry Seinfeld early in their careers. Sam Kinison has accused Bill Hicks of joke thievery who, in turn, has accused Denis Leary of stealing parts of his routine.

I’m too young and inexperienced to know all that stuff I quoted above. Yes, I stole it. I stole it from James Altucher’s post, How to Steal and Get Rich. It doesn’t make my post worthless, or my words less true. However, it adds a layer of depth that I couldn’t have achieved on my own.

Should James Altucher sue me? I don’t think he will. He steals, just like the rest of us.

TL;DR: how can I protect my ideas from being stolen?

Share that idea. Throw it far. Throw it wide. Gather feedback. Talk to friends about it. Discuss it with your spouse, your kids, your friends at a barbecue party. And do it the best you can. Do it in a way that even if Google or Apple got a whiff of it, they wouldn’t bother to compete with you. Make them try to buy your business instead.

If you turn your idea into reality well enough, if you truly harness your passion and ride the waves it creates, you will protect your idea in a way no patent could ever do: you will protect it through your uniqueness. For free.

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