Nobody's going to steal your idea

When I was working on my dissertation, I thought someone might scoop my research and I’d have to start over. Looking back, that was ridiculous. For one thing, my research was too arcane for many others to care about. And even if someone had proven one of my theorems, there would still be something original in my work.

Since then I’ve signed NDAs (non-disclosure agreements) for numerous companies afraid that someone might steal their ideas. Maybe they’re doing the right thing to be cautious, but I doubt it’s necessary.

I think Howard Aiken got it right:

Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.

One thing I’ve learned from developing software is that it’s very difficult to transfer ideas. A lot of software projects never completely transition from the original author because no one else really understands what’s going on.

It’s more likely that someone will come up with your idea independently than that someone would steal it. If the time is ripe for an idea, and all the pieces are there waiting for someone to put them together, it may be discovered multiple times. But unless someone is close to making the discovery for himself, he won’t get it even if you explain it to him.

And when other people do have your idea, they still have to implement it. That’s the hard part. We all have more ideas than we can carry out. The chance that someone else will have your idea and have the determination to execute it is tiny.

70 thoughts on “Nobody's going to steal your idea

  1. “A lot of software projects never completely transition from the original author because no one else really understands what’s going on.”

    LOL, exactly, nobody’s using the tiniest parser generator I made, likely because nobody understands why it works.

  2. Michael Pyshnov: There should be another term for when someone uses power to steal some else’s work. Professors take credit for their student’s work, bosses take credit for subordinate’s work, etc. And there are shades of gray here, such as someone taking a disproportionate share of the credit for a collaboration. I’ve seen that, such as a professor taking 90% credit for something he contributed 10% to. I’ve also seen it go the other way, people being generous in the amount of credit they give others. Of course it’s much more pleasant to work with the latter.

  3. I saw Twitter before it was open to the publjc from a post on dailymashup which aggregates delicious links. Some weird public sms cell phone software. I flat out didn’t get it and didn’t even bother to signup at the time. Forward to today and I’m developing Twitter products like same story with Pinterest. I thought it was cute like a hundred other products I did market research on. With a good amount of experience. I can say this. Not only will people not steal your idea but most likely your users willl surprise the hell out of you when they start using your products. More likely they might like how you handle some aspect and roll with that to see how it vibes with their own vision. The selfish gene is a friend.

  4. Very true indeed: When I was working on my Ph.D. thesis (about IT outsourcing) I had the same experience: Either people told me that the ideas I was developing would never work or that they had been doing similar things for the last 20 years – so nothing new here. The latter really freaked me out because it showed in every single case that they didn’t understand what I was working on in the first place. Concerning the first line of attack: My works on IT outsourcing are now among the most cited ones at least in the German speaking world.

    I am now mainly interested in finance but the same here: I would go so far as to state that if somebody found the Holy Grail of Investing (not that I particularly think there is one) could print it on large placards and put them into Central Park in NYC – nobody would care and (s)he would even be ridiculed. Meaning: Most of those über-secretive hedge funds managers are just suckers that have something to hide, in most cases their bad performance and their being overwhelmed by noise. The real sophisticated people in finance are quite open about what they do and their shortcomings too.

  5. John, you shoud read the documents. My advisor never contributed a bit to my reseach and, claimed that she had a “mutation idea” only years later when I went to court. The “mutation idea” is clearly a lie, since it was in my proposal for thesis and then she attributed two discoveries to me in a letter, one discovery was the “mutation idea”. In Statement of Defence in court she said that my thesis ideas were based on my work published earlier. There is half a dozen of other evidence showing that all ideas in my research were mine. It’s all in the documents presented by her and the university in court as all relevant documents. That’s it. Other cases like this one are not quite the same.

  6. I think the “standard terminology” used here is confusing.

    It’s entirely possible to steal ideas, through use of ECT or drugs (such as amnesiacs) or other such things which can cause temporary or persistent memory loss. But that’s not what people are talking about here.

    What we are talking about here is stealing credit for an idea. And that’s a murky issue. I can know when I started thinking a thought, but how can I know what other people were thinking? I can certainly see what’s being done, concretely, but that does not tell me about thoughts that other people have had but have not pursued. And what if both of us have been inspired by someone else?

    And this problem gets worse when I am not talking about ideas I have thought (where at least I have an understanding of my own thinking) and instead I am talking about other people’s ideas.

    Anyways, as some people will put it: ideas can be shared, but cannot be stolen. I would not go that far (see my first paragraph in this comment for one of the reasons I disagree with that idea) but I do think that there is some significant validity to this kind of thinking.

  7. About John’s comments:

    1-Maybe few people care about your idea. >>> There are always people around to benefit from anything you may have for free! No matter it is small or big idea.
    2-It’s hard to steal ideas. >>> No at all. The core of idea is very easy to caught, especially if it is other one’s.
    3-It’s common for multiple people to have the same idea. >>> Never two idea can be exactly the same. There is always something to be stolen.
    4-Ideas take hard work to implement. >>> OK. It does not mean should be kept on air!

    It is very very common practice in universities that “Professors take credit for their student’s work,…”. This is however a very disgusting fact in the community of researchers.

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