Many entrepreneurs are surprised to learn that stealing someone else's business idea is often perfectly legal. In most cases, unless the idea is protected by a trademark, patent or copyright, other businesses can take the idea and run with it. There are, however, some exceptions to this rule and the degree and obviousness of the theft can affect whether or not it is legal.
Copyright infringement occurs when one person takes another person's ideas that are preserved in some fixed, tangible form. For example, stealing the plot of someone else's novel, using someone else's design or using someone else's music might constitute copyright infringement. Because businesses and business ideas are sometimes preserved in copyrighted form, it's possible that stealing another person's idea could constitute copyright infringement. Copyright laws don't require that an item be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office to be copyrighted, so stealing someone else's novel or other creative work -- even if the copyright is not registered -- might be the sort of business theft that could run afoul of copyright laws.
Trademark protection is afforded to unique identifying business marks such as logos, business names and catch phrases. Trademarks must be affixed to some item; you can't just trademark a name, but you could trademark a name affixed to a hat or t-shirt. If someone else steals your trademark and uses it to start their own business, this is trademark infringement, which carries stiff civil penalties.
Ideas in and of themselves are rarely able to receive legal protections unless they are truly novel. Design patents are sometimes used to protect business ideas for specific ideas. For example, an inventor might patent the code for a program he plans to develop. Stealing someone else's patented idea is a civil offense that can bring about lawsuits, but a patent must be registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to be protected.
Tortious interference with business occurs when another person directly interferes with a business's ability to operate. This offense usually involves other offenses, such as defamation. However, if a person steals your idea and then actively works to prevent you from bringing your idea to fruition, this could constitute tortious interference. Tortious interference can be extremely difficult to prove, but is a civil offense that a skilled business attorney can help you navigate.
- CNNMoney: When Piracy is Legal
- CNNMoney: Is Your Idea Safe?
- U.S. Patent and Trademark Office: General Information Concerning Patents
- U.S. Copyright Office: Copyright Basics
- Essentials of Intellectual Property; Alexander I. Poltorak et al.
Van Thompson is an attorney and writer. A former martial arts instructor, he holds bachelor's degrees in music and computer science from Westchester University, and a juris doctor from Georgia State University. He is the recipient of numerous writing awards, including a 2009 CALI Legal Writing Award.