How (and Why) Do You Protect an Idea?

In the 19th century, Francis Cabot Lowell stole an idea. More importantly, he stole an idea from Britain and brought it back to the United States, largely transforming the American economy.

The target of Lowell’s espionage wasn’t exactly sexy, but it was effective nonetheless.

In 1784, Edmund Cartwright, an English inventor, pioneered the mechanical loom. For many years prior to his invention, looms (a tool for weaving fabric) were powered manually. The invention led to a drastic increase in output and productivity.

As a result, Britain’s textile industry boomed, and they fought hard to protect the source of their dominance. It was illegal to sell power looms to manufacturers outside of Britain and textile workers weren’t allowed to emigrate to other countries for fear that they would spill design secrets. British customs officers even searched visitors as they left the country.

Enter Francis Cabot Lowell.

As author Matt Ridley describes in The Rational Optimist, Lowell made a trip to Britain and visited a number of mills around the country. During his stay, he memorized the details of the power loom and brought them back to the United States. When he returned, he had a mechanic and inventor turn his memories into a close replica.

Idea stolen.

How (and Why) Do You Protect an Idea?

Ridley goes on to detail the primary ways to protect your ideas.

The first way is to keep it a secret. This comes with a few strings attached. If it’s easy to figure out the recipe or reverse engineer your business, this doesn’t work. The risk of the secret getting out also increases as you tell more people (aka your company grows).

The second is to move faster, build better products, and gobble up more market share than your competition. You’re now the default choice in a growing market. The iPod wasn’t the only MP3 music device that came out in the early 2000s. It was just the best, the fashionable choice that everyone wanted.

The third way is to patent or trademark the idea. This is time-consuming and can be pricey (especially to defend). Ridley hints that patents/copyrights may even slow down innovation since they make it harder to remix, cut, share, and modify ideas. As Austin Kleon details in Steal Like an Artist, art and innovation often involve tweaking existing ideas to build something new.

This begs the question: Why are we even trying to protect ideas in the first place?

The most obvious reason is we’re afraid they’ll get stolen. There are other reasons (we’re fearful of criticism, for example), but I suspect theft is the primary reason. We’re concerned that if we tell someone else, they’ll beat us to it, and we’ll be sitting in our living room as they rise to superstar status off of our idea.

Outside of a few examples that are shared again and again (the story of Facebook comes to mind), how often is this true? I’ll venture to guess that it’s far less likely than one might imagine.

First, as is often repeated, ideas are one thing; execution is another. Second, even if you keep your idea a secret until launch, you’ll still eventually have competition. Keeping the iPod a secret until launch day didn’t prevent dozens of competitors from springing up. Third, most people probably won’t care about your idea anyway. Your idea seems terrific to you largely because it’s baked in with a lot of personal details – how you view the world, your past experiences, etc. It’s probably going to be harder to win others over than you think. To quote Austin Kleon, “Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.”

So, what should we do with our ideas? Open them up! Open source them. Invite others to contribute, remix, copy/paste, tweak, and share them.

As Ridley concludes, “exchange” is the path to innovation:

“It is the ever-increasing exchange of ideas that causes the ever-increasing rate of innovation in the modern world.”