You are probably in pursuit of that first client, an investor, funding from an institution or seeking assistance with professional skills. In that midst, don't lose your most valuable asset, the business in your idea.
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Besides you, the other person that may recognise the full potential of your idea may be the next person you may seek council and assistance from. It's a jungle out there, particularly an African jungle. Caution is a must but not fear.
Patenting is your best option but if you had the amount of money you needed to get one, you would not need to start a business. So, with guts, discipline and the right tight paperwork you can minimise and even prevent corporation or individuals from stealing your hard work.
"How could such a well-known company do that?"
Just like that! It does not matter the size of the company nor how well-known it is. In fact, the bigger it is the more cautious you should be. Euodia Roets, artist, illustrator and designer for Touchee Feelee published how Woolworth's used her designs after being approached by the retailer. Several meetings passed and later a rejection, her designs are on the retailer's shelf
Corrupt company employees rely on the lengthy pedantically bureaucratic processes within their large companies to dissuade you from retaliating. They also have smarter and more ruthless lawyers. Even though you can prove your idea was infringed it will be daunting process that could ruin your potential business.
There are cases where the small guy won against a giant like in the case of Frankie's debacle
with again, Woolworths. And the on-going Vodacom "please call me" battle
Put it on paper
In any court of law an agreement written and signed for on a piece of tissue is binding. If you have more terms and conditions than a piece of tissue will permit then you may use any of the following documents. (templates are available on online searches)
This is the document Roets could have presented along with her samples to Woolworths. This document binds the receiver of the information from creating a different version of your work.
Dubious corporates rely on the 33% difference loophole. This allows them to change the make up an idea or product by 33% and they could dodge a case of intellectual property infringement.
This document is simply a vow of secrecy. This prevents the receiver of the information from releasing to other entities outside of the organisation intended e.g. manufacturers. This document is just as effective applied to individuals privy to the business of your idea. At your discretion it will protect you for an extended time frame even after the receiver has completed any of their contributions to your idea, business or project.
Work for hire agreement
Ever heard of the Winklevoss twins? Well, they are the ones that came up with the core idea for Facebook and asked Zuckerburg to develop it for them. Long story short: he had to pay them out of court settlement.
Just as you might need someone to design a mobile app for you, this document stipulates that the idea is yours and outlines their role in the business inclusive of proactive ideas as well as how much they are compensated.
Do not be afraid of asking a giant retailer to sign any of these, because it is more frustrating to deal with seeing your idea making millions for a billion rand company while you still trying to afford printing paper. Be firm, be stern and be confident.
Do your research
Information is key and will make all the difference. Make sure you investigate as much as possible about the receiver of your information.
You can easily search and find what a company has been doing, what disputes it has been involved in. Woolworths is infamous in the indie creative circles for liberating ideas from originators...if you go with the comments under Roets' article.
An extra tip is: instead of competing with people in the same business you are in, consider collaborating. That way you are converting would-be idea thieves and competitors into contributors into yours and their success too. Find out more about Copyright and Trademarks, they are simple and quick to apply than you probably think.