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.

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Posted in Business, Creativity
55 comments on “Nobody's going to steal your idea
  1. egfx says:

    http://www.johndcook.com/blog/2012/11/02/nobody-will-steal-your-idea/#comment-290063 , I don’t get it either :/

    Make the whole thing a diagram and point to things. It will help.

  2. rdm says:

    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.

  3. MarcC says:

    Simple Apple Infographic- Stolen ideas

    The reality of good ideas used by big business where the one
    with most money wins regardless of who’s idea it was!

    http://mashable.com/2012/10/27/apple-stolen-ideas/

  4. Evaluate says:

    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.

  5. Adrian Crook says:

    Hi John,

    I wrote something similar just yesterday – I should have used your Aiken quote in it! Darn!

    Great post.

    Mine is http://adriancrook.com/top-5-reasons-stealth-mode-will-kill-your-startup/

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