I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard the phrase “I have a great idea that is going to make me millions, but I can’t tell you what it is. Can you give me advice on what to do with it?” My answer is almost always “No, not without some clue as to what you’re talking about.” Everyone, it seems (including me), has at some point in their life that they are convinced that no one else has ever thought of and that will make them millions if they could only get someone to invest in it (but take little or no equity from the investment). In reality, most any idea anyone comes up with has been thought of by one of the other 7 billion people on this earth during the roughly 400,000 thinking hours they each will have during their lifetime. There are exceptions to this rule, but I’m hard pressed to come up with an example that I could conclusively say no other person ever thought of the idea, since there is no way to prove that simply because historical records don’t include the parallel thinker, that thinker didn’t exist. The first person to figure out how to create fire might fall into that category, but after that I think it’s fair to say that many great ideas are conceived of completely independently by multiple people.
This concept is named the multiple discovery theory of invention (as opposed to the heroic theory). There are numerous examples of multiple discovery for inventions and theories that have literally changed the human condition, including calculus (Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz), the theory of evolution of species (Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace), the Electrical telegraph (Charles Wheatstone and Samuel F.B. Morse), and many others.
That being said, there are some obvious situations when one shouldn’t assume that freely providing independently discovered information won’t result in someone else laying claim to the rights to the information or the benefits to be derived from using that information. If someone knows the location of a previously undiscovered gold or diamond mine, as an obvious example, it would certainly be prudent to secure the mineral rights to the land before publishing its existence. There are also examples of people taking simple and obvious ideas and pretending they are their own. My company, Sentek Global, was attempting to partner with a local hardware reseller company to provide our cyber security services to their customer base. After my initial meeting with their CEO (where I gave my elevator pitch on how Sentek runs their security engagements similar to the special operations teams that I led as a SEAL Officer), the contact went cold. After about six months, we heard about how this company had a new cyber security practice from which they would send “SEAL Teams” (I’m not kidding here) out to their clients to run their security engagements. There is no evidence that this company has done any engagements like this or that they have any idea of what a SEAL Team TISI +0.15% actually is or employ any actual cyber security engineers, but this is an example of how even simple ideas like a marketing pitch can be considered fair game for copying by someone with low morals and/or lack of business acumen.
So if you have a great idea, when should you keep it close hold and when should you bring others into the “know” with you? In general, if you need monetary assistance or just advice on how good the idea is, you probably will have to tell someone else. Getting whoever you are speaking with to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA, also referred to as a Confidentiality Agreement) may provide some legal recourse should whoever you confide in decide that your idea is better exploited by them. However, just remember that if you want to use legal recourse to defend your intellectual property rights it will cost you money and time, both of which you may not be able to recover in an eventual settlement. Many would be entrepreneurs have expressed frustration when presenting to Venture Capitalists because the VC firm will often refuse to sign a Non-Disclosure agreement before hearing the entrepreneur’s pitch. There are a few reasons for this, the primary one being that VC firms hear so many ideas that if they sign NDAs they open the door for litigation for an idea they might have heard five times in the previous week if they decide to go with a competing person with the same idea. In addition, many VC firms espouse the belief that ideas are cheap, and the real value in a startup is the management team and the individuals who comprise that team.