How to protect idea for database and apps after showing it to someone?
July 10, 2012 2:51 AM   Subscribe

I sent a video outlining an idea I came up with for a DB and series of apps to a contact I made at a big org. I received a terse reply that appeared to be claiming the idea as theirs. What is the best way to respond?

In the last month I was invited to attend a brainstorming session for a large organization on a narrow aspect of their business. While I was there, and a bit bored, I had an idea that I believed would be huge for their business, but was off topic of the symposium. I wrote the idea down during the conference and shared it with my colleague, who attended with me. I also mentioned the idea in rough outline to a couple of people in their org , including one very senior person, their President of Digital Stuff, whom I talked to during one of the breaks. They were interested and in one case really enthusiastic, That's a big idea!

The idea is for an opt-in database and series of apps. More than apps, though, the building of this database is the basis for new relationships with this company with retailers and a stream of revenue in its own right.

I decided to made a short video, teeing up the problem this organization faces, and a set of proposed solutions I devised with my colleague, and send it to the senior guy I'd met and one other person there. I didn't provide them all of the answers, but undoubtedly gave a lot of the idea away in what I sent. I did it because I believed those I sent it to would respect the idea's provenance and would lead to a conversation between us about how the company I work for could help them build this. I was probably really naive.

I received a terse reply that said. "Thanks for reaching out. Certainly an area we're working on." No more.

Is there any reply I can send that indicates that I consider what I sent my intellectual property? What is the proper response to a rebuff such as I received? Of course, I have no way of knowing whether they had been working on a parallel set of tools, though no one I spoke to at the conference indicated that.
posted by brynnwood to Technology (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I read that reply as meaning that they were already working on ways of managing retailer relationships etc, not that they were claiming your idea as theirs. I think they took your email as a sales pitch, and the reply was just saying "Thanks but we don't want to buy this from you as we are already investigating various solutions."
posted by KateViolet at 3:11 AM on July 10, 2012 [8 favorites]

Best answer: I know it's kind of upsetting, given that you've put so much time and effort into this. But really, all you've done (from their perspective) is made a casual suggestion for something they might want to do. Their apparent enthusiasm may be typical for them, even for ideas that, with full consideration, turn out to be things they don't want to pursue. I've worked with plenty of people who get excited over every new idea, good or otherwise.

Then again, your unexpected follow-up work might have put them in a difficult position, where they're concerned that you may have expectations in terms of them giving your company work or formalising your relationship with them in some way. Or, as you say, this might be something they've already (in some way or another) thought of already. The terse response may be a general rejection of your own bid for involvement. Or it may be that they liked your idea and would prefer to implement it in-house. You may never know.
posted by pipeski at 3:16 AM on July 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

I suspect that this is much like the "never read an unsolicited script" philosophy that most people in the film/tv business have. Once you pay attention to a work by another person, anything you do that might be similar is suspect as a rip-off or theft of the work submitted.
posted by HuronBob at 3:57 AM on July 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

What happened may have been unfair (although as you and others have already said, there's probably no way to know without a paper trail of emails or a confession).

But unfair isn't generally illegal, and ideas, unlike patented inventions or concrete implementations, aren't "intellectual property" in any legally useful way, even with a video describing them.
posted by caek at 4:08 AM on July 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Answering the main question: Is there any reply I can send that indicates that I consider what I sent my intellectual property?

Only a lawyer qualified to practice in your jurisdiction can answer that for you. It's possible that it is not intellectual property in any meaningful sense and they are completely free to use it.

More broadly, it's unclear what you wanted to get out of this video you sent along. I'm guessing from would lead to a conversation between us about how the company I work for could help them build this that you were hoping they would pay your company and/or you to do this.

So let me clarify the situation for you: what you send them was a sales pitch. Regardless of what you thought it was, you were sending a sales pitch, but it sounds like you didn't really plan the pitch. What you really needed to do was engage the sales force at your company to come up with the appropriate pitch, the right person at other organization to talk to, and a way to demonstrate the impact / revenue from this idea. Sales would also have helped you present it in a way that didn't give away the entire plan, but just enough to get them interested without giving away the "intellectual property" that made the idea special. It's also possible that Sales would have let you know that while it's a good idea, it's not so revolutionary that they need to hold some info back.
posted by Tehhund at 6:18 AM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

"Is there any reply I can send that indicates that I consider what I sent my intellectual property?"

Short answer: no.

Long answer: well, maybe, but I doubt you're asking the right question.

"Intellectual property" law gives you a complicated set of tools, none of which work quite the way you seem to expect. You wouldn't want them to anyway.

What was it you actually wanted to accomplish by doing this?

"I did it because I believed those I sent it to would respect the idea's provenance and would lead to a conversation between us about how the company I work for could help them build this. I was probably really naive."

Probably. Probably not for the reason you think--selling somebody on an idea is usually harder than that.

I'm a little vague on the relationship between your employer, Big Org, and this symposium. Were you doing this on company time? Maybe someone at your company would have advice for you in this situation?

When it comes to talking to a President of Digital Stuff at Big Org, I'm naive too. My own impulse would be to ask them questions instead of trying to tell them my ideas, because a) they're an expert on their problem space, and probably have lots of interesting and useful things to say about it, and b) in their position they may be tired of people pushing ideas at them, but they probably enjoy talking about their work. Maybe that's just me.

Also, if you want to be known for coming up with good ideas, you're probably better off talking about your ideas than guarding them, so hopefully you don't take the wrong lesson from this.
posted by bfields at 7:09 AM on July 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

I agree that it sounds more like they were shutting you down rather than they had stolen your idea. When I worked in publishing, we never accepted unsolicited manuscripts for this very reason: to avoid possible legal wrangling over creative property.

The other thing you should be aware of with regard to considering that this is your intellectual property is that it may not be. It sounds like you went to this conference as a representative of the company for whom you work, and on company time you came up with this idea. In most cases, this idea would be considered your company's intellectual property, not yours. The proper channel would then be to go through your company to present the idea.
posted by violetk at 8:22 AM on July 10, 2012

The time to assert that it was your intellectual property was BEFORE sending it to them. At that point, you could have asked them to sign an NDA. (Which they would have refused to do.)

Now, their interest is in protecting themselves. As others have pointed out, they don't want you coming after them saying, "Your new product was my idea and I own half of it!"

It is always a bad move to send unsolicited information that could be construed as an invention. It's bad for you because you lose control over your information, it's bad for them because it muddies the intellectual property waters. You should let it go.
posted by chickenmagazine at 9:14 AM on July 10, 2012

Forget about it and start working on generalizing your idea for any company that needs to maintain a database like this. In the future, boil it down to a paragraph or two instead of spending time and effort making a presentation video.

Maybe they'll get in touch with you later, who knows. One thing is for sure, though: large organizations aren't going to be stealing your idea with any kind of speed. If they can even decide to put resources in the direction you're talking about, they'll probably screw it up (the map [your video] is not the territory) or they'll need your help.

The proper response is, "Great! Let me know if I can be of any assistance."
posted by rhizome at 9:57 AM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone. I feel a lot better about this. I know I probably went about this the wrong way. I'll learn from it. I am doing this with my company. I'm going to assume, that the BIG ORG was really saying, hey we're not interested in buying that from you right now.
posted by brynnwood at 6:51 AM on July 13, 2012

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