This is another email question I received via my ask-me-a-question form on my timberry.com site. I’ve edited it slightly:
I recently read your article protect your ideas and I have an idea that I want to protect and want to pitch to a company. I don’t know if I can turn my idea into a business without the business I created it for. I have an idea for a new revenue model for Facebook that uses their current model but gets more advertising and more potential … But my model would only work on Facebook; I don’t think I could start up a social networking site and get the same results. So my questions is do I try to patent the idea then go to them or what? How do I approach a successful company and tell them “hey you could be making way more money and revolutionize social networking!
And my answer:
- Find out about patents and whether or not your idea has a good chance of being patentable. I seriously doubt that your idea is patentable, but I don’t know what it is. Patents are for inventions, not ideas. There have been some business model patents issued, but to build a business around it you’d have to be able to not just have a patent but defend it. And you should worry that the patent system is no longer working, caught in a deluge of technology.
- If there’s a reasonable chance of a good strong patent that would be defensible against Facebook, explore that option. Plan to spend tens of thousands of dollars, so be honest with yourself. Start by spending a thousand or so dollars with a patent attorney really good, and really honest, who can tell you what the odds are, and be prepared to end the project there.
- If — my guess — the patent option isn’t realistic, then forget it. You’re wasting your time. Give it up. The following points are just so you understand why.
- Jump into the shoes of Facebook for a few seconds. They live and breathe their business model. How likely is it that they’re going to invite you to tell them what they haven’t thought of? How likely is it that you’ve got something related to some direction they’re already studying? And how much do they want to deal with some stranger saying what they’re doing is an idea they copied?
- To help you think of it this way, I’ll share that during the years I built Palo Alto Software I learned not to even respond to people who wanted to sell me an idea for my business. I learned it the hard way: every single time I listened, it was something we’d thought about, often something we tried, but didn’t work. In a couple of rare occasions it was something we were already working on, which led to “oh dear, now this guy’s going to think we did it because he suggested.”
- And then, to make matters worse, there’s the problem of ownership: even if you did think up that great idea, originally, you don’t own it. You can’t legally own an idea. Patents protect inventions, not ideas (see points 1 and 2 above); copyright protects creative works; and trademark protects commercial communications. You can’t sell something you don’t own. Tell it to Facebook and they can run with it for free. They pay you only if they want to, out of the well-known goodness of their huge corporate heart.
- Just to explain an apparent contradiction between points 4 and 6: legally the big company can take anybody’s idea and run with it, because nobody owns an idea; but big companies don’t want to deal with the accusation or even the bad karma of actually doing that. Who wants the negative press? It’s way better to just not ever respond to you.
So there you have it. Not what you wanted to hear, I’m sure, but if I save you a lot of wasted effort, then I’ve done you a favor.