How to protect your ideas in the digital age
If we're in the idea business, how to protect those ideas?
One way is to misuse trademark law. With the help of search engines, greedy lawyers who charge by the letter are busy sending claim letters to anyone who even comes close to using a word or phrase they believe their client 'owns'. News flash: trademark law is designed to make it clear who makes a good or a service. It's a mark we put on something we create to indicate the source of the thing, not the inventor of a word or even a symbol. They didn't invent trademark law to prevent me from putting a picture of your cricket team's logo on my blog. They invented it to make it clear who was selling you something (a mark for trade = trademark).
I'm now officially trademarking thank-you™. From now on, whenever you use this word, please be sure to send me a royalty check.
Another way to protect your ideas is to (mis)use copyright law. You might think that this is a federal law designed to allow you to sue people who steal your ideas. It's not. Ideas are free. Anyone can use them. Copyright protects the expression of ideas, the particular arrangement of words or sounds or images. Bob Marley's estate can't sue anyone who records a reggae song... only the people who use his precise expression of words or music. Sure, get very good at expressing yourself (like Dylan or Sarah Jones) and then no one can copy your expression. But your ideas? They're up for grabs, and its a good thing too.
The challenge for people who create content isn't to spend all the time looking for pirates. It's to build a platform for commerce, a way and a place to get paid for what they create. Without that, you've got no revenue stream and pirates are irrelevant anyway. Newspapers aren't in trouble because people are copying the news. They're in trouble because they forgot to build a scalable, profitable online model for commerce.
Patents are an option except they're really expensive and do nothing but give you the right to sue. And they're best when used to protect a particular physical manifestation of an idea. It's a real crapshoot to spend tens of thousands of dollars to patent an idea you thought up in the shower one day.
So, how to protect your ideas in a world where ideas spread?
Instead, spread them. Build a reputation as someone who creates great ideas, sometimes on demand. Or as someone who can manipulate or build on your ideas better than a copycat can. Or use your ideas to earn a permission asset so you can build a relationship with people who are interested. Focus on being the best tailor with the sharpest scissors, not the litigant who sues any tailor who deigns to use a pair of scissors.