Selling my unpatented idea...

Okay, let’s say I have this really great improvment to an existing product. I truely believe that company XYZ would really profit from it. Of course, I’m just a schmuck making squat for a living, so I can’t hire a patent agent or patent lawyer. I don’t have the time or resources involved to research and get the patent myself. Basically, I am stuck with two options. Option 1 is to do nothing. Okay, but that’s not going to get me anywhere. Option 2 is to pitch the idea to company XYZ. But I don’t trust business–any business–I believe they’ll do anything in their means to screw me out of the profits from my idea, even if I gave them a most generous offer (far below the amount they’d make off the idea), and if I can’t afford a patent lawyer, I sure as hell can’t afford a protracted lawsuit. Now to the question, what’s the best way I can protect my idea if I choose to pitch it to XYZ? I have prior art of my design, but I want to know what more I could do.

Without the patent, you very much run the risk of XYZ saying thanks but no thanks, sending you on your way, and the minute you are out the door having their people develop the same idea, and getting a patent as quick as possible. That would really screw you over, so my advice would be to try your hardest to apply for said patent.

Most in your hypothetical position have to do two things:

  1. Make them believe your idea is great and set up a
    meeting that matters without telling them exactly what the
    idea is.

  2. Get them to sign a non-disclosure agreement (that was
    drawn up by an attorney, so it says the right things) first.

Good luck! (many have tried)

Then someone else can take the idea off you for nothing.

Patent it.

I’m sorry if this is unsympathetic. But patents were designed precisely for this situation. You seem to want a cheap (free?!) alternative that will guarantee your legal rights and make you a lot of money.
There isn’t one.

I have to disagree with the patent advice.

Patents in theory protect you, but they’re next-to-impossible
to enforce. I’m a software engineer, and we have supposedly
patented algorithms ripped off all the time.

I also used to be friends with a patent lawyer. He said it’s
not worth the money.

Finding an established business, that specifically agrees
and signs to not steal the idea beforehand, is your best

Non-disclosure agreement.


I’m posting from England, so maybe the situation is different in the US.
But are you sure the software algorithms aren’t being reverse-engineered? (Though I do agree programs are much harder to protect than physical ideas).

Also, I’m not sure that you can interest a company in something without telling them what it is.
Plus if you hire a lawyer to draw up a non-disclosure agreement, is that any cheaper than a patent? (And how do you prove in court they broke the agreement? What if they then produce a patent?!)

glee is correct. In my business we are often approached by people who want us to sign some kind of non-compete/non-disclosure agreement (typically time limited) in order to “safely” pitch us an idea that is otherwise unprotected.

We usually turn them down, although the practice persists because some companies do operate off of independently generated ideas. Most of those companies are not in the business of generating their own projects, and they get along because they do honor their deals with those who bring them ideas to develop (for the most part).

We usually turn them down because, without knowing in advance what the idea is, we run the risk of agreeing to not pursue an idea we were already pursuing on our own before the approach to hear the pitch.

If you can at least initiate some part of patent proceedings you have some protection. If it’s truly a good idea, it’s worth spending an hour with a patent attorney.

I wasn’t talking about the code, per se. I think
we copyright that. That is, we register the copyright.

What we’ve patented is specific ways of solving problems,
so it wouldn’t matter if they reverse-engineered it, out and
out stole it, or just looked at the product as a black box
and said “I see what they must be doing!”

Well, we’ve talked to people after having them sign NDA’s.
We’ve also required people to sign ours from time to time.
So you can interest some companies, at least.

Yes, getting an NDA is cheaper than a patent.

Why don’t you tell me what your idea is, that way I would be in a better position to, uh, help you. :wink:

Here’s the way sophisticated companies work. Let’s assume the company whose product you want to improve is one.

  1. You contact them and say you have a great idea to improve their product.
    2a) Most of them say “we don’t accept unsolicited ideas.”
    2b) They say "we accept unsolicited ideas, but not under any non-disclosure agreement, and we are free to use whatever you disclose as we see fit. If that is unacceptable to you, we won’t accept your idea.

Problem with unsolicited ideas is that they are hard to pin down, therefore making litigation against you a crapshoot.

If you can show them a patent, that is easy to evaluate as to its value (by analyzing the claims the gov’t granted), and is relatively strong and enforceable.

Anyone who says patents are worthless hasn’t been following the law recently. Lots of huge awards, often for underdog plaintiffs.

What patents have been successfully, easily enforced by an
underdog recently?

If you’re going to mention the waterbed guy, or the guy who
invented intermittent wipers, I’d say they’re not that
recent, nor were they easily won, each taking more than a
decade to win.

Do a search for this guy:
Jerome Lemelson.

If you’re worried about legal fees, ask for a contingent deal. If your patent/invention is that good, you’ll find someone to prosecute/litigate it. That’s how Lemelson’s lawyer earned in one year more money than several of the largest law firms in the country.

PS: most insiders think Lemelson’s patents are total BS. So if you’ve got something good, you’re one up on him.

Gee, I guess all that patent enforcement work my colleagues down the corridor do is not worth it.

If you don’t get a patent, you have no proprietary right in your invention. No proprietary right, you are giving away cash.

Talk to a patent attorney.

I just want to be the first jerk to point out that a great idea isn’t that big a deal; there are plenty of them out there. The real effort (and rewards) are in producing something people want and selling and delivering it to them.

Is your idea something you can produce? Or is it something that would really only be of value to company XYZ? Are you interested in trying to build a company around this idea? Do you have expertise in the area?

Yes, that’s certainly where the money is; and there will be associated start-up costs which would be tough for an individual to meet.

But then it depends what you mean by ‘a great idea’, doesn’t it?

If I come up with an idea that will sell at a profit, then I can certainly make money. Either by selling the patent to a company in the field, or by borrowing huge amounts and working long days to get it going myself.

I suspect that ‘the plenty of good ideas’ you mention are in fact largely impracticable (= unprofitable) or just don’t work. My mate in the UK Patent Office regularly gets designs/models of perpetual-motion machines*.
*He puts the models in a dark cupboard for a month. Most of them are solar-powered, thought the inventors don’t realise this.

There is a good web site to get information on patents.
It’s They have valuable links to software and information on starting the patent process yourself.
You can also do a preliminary patent search and there is
also a list of patent professionals, if you want to go
that route.

My idea is on the order of intermittent wipes–definitely useful, something people would like, but I’d have to produce the whole car more-or-less in order to market it on my own.

Besides, wasn’t the intermittent wiper guy eventually driven to suicide?

Too true! The story is that the intermittent wiper guy went broke fighting all the car makers…as his big winnings just went to pay for his lawyer(s).

  • Jinx

I’ve heard it said that if you were to keep a log, well documented, and esp. all the dates…and mail it to yourself in a certified envelope…and leave it SEALED…

This could serve as proof regarding “first to invent”. However, I wouldn’t trust it to carry much weight in court UNLESS you did, in fact submit a patent application…with all this documentation as supporting evidence of being “first to invent”.


Would this help? Those of you in the know may be able to say whether this is stupid or not.

Write down all the details of your idea, put it into a sealed envelope, and mail it to yourself. Leave it unopened with the postmark intact.

Then schedule your pitch.

If the company later develops the idea and claims that it was already in development when you met, and you somehow pursue litigation, you’ll have proof on your side that you had the idea at a certain point in time and shared it with them on Date X. It’s up to them, I’d suppose, to be able to prove that they already had the idea in the works. You’d have your side covered, though, because you can open the envelope with witnesses and show that the idea you shared was definitely yours the date of the meeting.

Of course, what do I know?

Good god, on preview I see that Jink said the same thing. Well, fer chrissakes, aren’t I unoriginal.