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. Excellent post. I agree with you completely. I have been in software development for over 25 years and I see NDA’s all the time. Makes sense for the legal folks to be happy.

    My problem is, I have a hard time coming up with ideas so I am not the least bit worried about someone stealing them and if they do, oh well, they still have to implement them. ;)

  2. NDAs are more useful for reducing competitive intelligence than preventing ideas from being stolen. A competitor might not be able to quickly replicate, but they can deploy FUD and other sales and marketing counter-measures if they know what you are working on.

  3. Depends on the complexity of the idea. I used to believe in this philosophy but I had a friend fully develop a new type of brownie baking sheet that a kitchenware company swooped in and stole after seeing it at a tradeshow (alas, she didn’t have a patent). The big companies are also moving a lot faster than they used to. If you’re on to something big and easy to understand, I would definitely keep it quiet and do a full launch, not an MVP. Hell, I can hack insanely fast and there have been ideas that I’ve been tempted to steal except for my strong moral compass (even if I knew the other person wouldn’t do them).

  4. When I was forming Aerospike, I was not overly worried about NDAs, and – as the thrust of this web post – I agree with the premise that the NDAs were unnecessary. When you’re trying to build buzz and momentum, you want folks talking about your idea.

    That being said, there was a meeting that the guy who turned out to be our lead VC set up, and at that meeting, I showed a deck to a “strategic consultant” who was also working for competing companies. Lo and behold, a majority of our concepts around databases being a “platform” supporting Sql, NoSQL, Document stores, and graph stores — and NoSQL being irrelevant but distributed reliability and scale being the key – were a key part of their press release.

    That meeting went very well and we went on to get funded through two rounds and are satisfying a lot of customers — so I’m happy we didn’t cancel the meeting, and I don’t even know if that particular consultant squealed, or just used our “brilliant insight” to inform his discussion.

  5. It can even be argued that if you CAN convince others to steal your idea, that validates there’s a market for it. So in sense, it’s a good sign if others are trying to steal it :)

  6. I especially like the this: “A lot of software projects never completely transition from the original author because no one else really understands what’s going on”. Never has a truer statement been said. No one else can execute exactly what you picture in your head. Not even if you explain it to them a million times.

  7. Christian: I wrote something else along these lines here:

    “The only way to completely wash your hands of a piece of software you’ve written is to change employers, and sometimes even that doesn’t work.”

  8. I fully agree with you. I have also found that if you don’t share your ideas you will inevitably end up with a very narrow conclusion.

  9. I would say – “better be safe than sorry”.
    On the other hand I also agree here and acknowledge that – Today in the world, almost everybody has some idea. It’s the execution and in fact smart execution that matters. That doesn’t mean that we start shouting our ideas but the thing is smart execution and time to market have so fearsome competition today that “ideas” in itself have lesser value these days.

    May be that’s why, we started putting our ideas [ for free : ) ] on –

  10. Not always true. Sometimes a great idea can be very simple. If you know it, you can implement it in your own ways instantly

  11. It seems your field is a lot different then say, drug companies, who are spying on one another all the time. I’m not sure if there has been a successful case of drug theft, but I don’t think any of the major drug companies would hesitate if they could find a way to do it without getting their asses sued off.

  12. I was told nobody is going to steal you idea many times and I believe it.
    But when I went to meet investors, they always asked how do you prevent your product for being copied? They are the same people that said nobody is going to steal your idea.
    Especially if your idea have a big potential to success and threatening the old corporate world. The chances is small, maybe 2% , but it can be fatal like Russian roulette.

    ” If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.” This is provided you have the team and the funding. Some people are good in product but can’t get funding.

  13. @Marc I agree. For example I worked at a anti-spam company that did pretty novel packet level control over mail flows to help slow spambots. A competitor might not care to go that route with their product but knowing the innards of how it works would give them marketting spel (for example “We’ll never slow your email”). Also knowing the innards would help spammers. I realize security by obscurity isn’t a plan but it still doesn’t mean it is a good idea to let your enemies know what you are doing to catch them.

    It is completely a motivation thing in my mind. A large amount (say 80%) of ideas don’t have an obvious market or at least a market that your competitors are currently positioned for. The net result is the inventor is very excited because it probably solved a problem for themselves or a space they know and the competitors for the most part don’t care because the market is too small, would require a lot of resources they could use to milk existing customers etc. Single guy 10M is fantastic and they’ll give up sleep for it, but for GE/Apple/MS/whatever it is a rounding error and not worth tying up a manager on.

  14. For the most part, I agree with the sentiment of your post. However, are you willing to “put your money where your mouth is” and publish all those ideas that you can’t carry out? If not, why?

  15. I used to think this way until I started work on an iphone app. I put it out to bid and received about 15 bids. 1 developer in particular seemed very eager to work on it but I ended up going with a different developer. By the time the app was completed and submitted to the app store, this ‘eager’ developer had made a copy of my app from the specs I submitted, wrote the same app, same name and submitted it to the Apple store days before I submitted mine. His was approved and mine was declined. Luckily, I explained what happened to the App store and, long story short, his was removed and mine was added. Although my app didn’t make me rich, from my experience, it does happen. Probably not very frequently, but it does happen. So, I would agree with Will. It depends on the complexity of the idea.

  16. Personally anecdotal observations should not serve as a definitive conclusion. In regards to my own thesis, a professor more or less let another student copy my work (I found a thesis that was a poorly theasurized version of my original proposal). People lie, cheat, and commit plagiarism all the the time. TV networks frequently make copy cat shows. While is possible that two independent ideas formed on their own and are similar, its for sure not always the case. If one thinks they have something valuable to protect, then they should do so.

  17. assumption would be : everyone is stupid, you are the only one working on that particular problem in that particular time period, and its so not important that no one cares…
    To add to Annoynoums sexample above, i personally observed situation where work of one professor were borrowed to a letter and prominent field medal was recieved by another professor/university.

  18. Not always true. Simple ideas, you know the ones that people will be blown away by, can be easily be scooped; thus, the easier it is to implement, the more likely it will be stolen if you don’t shut your trap. Loose lips sink ships.

    Took me a while to learn that the hard way.

  19. We develop software in a particular market segment. At a stage our software was clearly way ahead of our competitors. Our primary competitor copied significantly from us – they redesigned their entire product around the way we had built our product. They even borrowed sections of our user guide, referred to various things in the software using the terminology we developed, and get this, they even copied sections of our website – WORD FOR WORD.

    So YMMV.

  20. NDA is important because the infomration disclosed is not considered as public disclosure, thereby preserving the right for the company to protect the idea via a patent. I just happen to be a developer and a patent attorney.

  21. I agree with “no one will steal your idea”.

    However, that does not necessarily extend to products. If there’s a good market for your product, and it’s not something that’s been done before, anything approaching an efficient market will grow rapidly adopt your product.

  22. I agree with “no one will steal your idea”.

    However, that does not necessarily extend to products. If there’s a good market for your product, and it’s not something that’s been done before, anything approaching an efficient market will rapidly adopt your product.

  23. People will steal your working code, though. That’s the biggest problem in some academic labs today, where one student gets code working and then another student ‘needs’ it and uses it on a paper about to be published. Often PIs are so out of it they don’t recognize the contributions of the original author.

    Disclaimer: happened to me. And I’ve seen it happen a lot.

  24. During my Master’s alone I met three students and two professors whose work had been lifted. One student had his PhD work scooped a few weeks before his defense. He just quit rather than put another few years in on a whole new topic. One student had his work patented, without credit, by his own advisor. One professor had two papers stolen on separate occasions: once because his own student discussed their work too freely, and once by a senior professor who offered to review a draft of a paper and simply published it in his own name.

    Turns out such shenanigans, even at the professorial level, are more common than we think. We never hear about them because any official complaint ends up tarnishing the reputations of the accuser, the accused and their respective institutions. So even the accuser is very strongly incentivized to just drop things and “live and learn”.

    And this is only in academia. Industry is even worse in regards to stealing ideas, because while professional ridicule and embarrassment might work to some extent in areas like academia, fashion and stand-up comedy, a big corporation is largely immune to anything but the biggest PR disasters.

  25. I can only agree… But this does not mean I’m publicizing all my ideas either (of course my dissertation interests no-one except my advisor, me and a set of like 5 other people) with respect to software projects. Not in fear of being stolen… But just that I can’t implement them! If I posted my idea and someone wrote a version of it, I would have very little interest in doing it afterwards… Getting there is half the fun, but I want the full lot of it for some projects (not all, I love reinventing the wheel.)


  26. My biz partner and I came up with the idea of anti-spam software in 1997 and didn’t patent the idea because 1) it cost $, 2) we were naive and thought no one would steal the idea. Everyone stole the idea and we’d be billionaires now if we had had a patent. Yes, they most certainly will steal your idea. Same for books. Be very afraid.

  27. It depends of the idea (scope / opportunity)… for example everybody copies Pinterest or Pinterest UI…. an idea with millions of users… based on an implementation…

  28. Another example from chemistry; There was a popular field in the 60s (Nobel gas chem) that had no practical applications. However, you hear lots of stories about people presenting ideas at conferences, then everyone phoning their grad students with notes and having them slam out papers and experiments before the person who had done the research could publish it.

  29. My college roommate stole an idea I was working on, and ran the business for 5 years before it failed. We no longer speak.

  30. When you are young you are afraid people will steal your ideas;
    when you are old you are afraid they won’t. — David D. Friedman

  31. Nice post and I mostly agree. However one time when I was young I had an idea that someone did “steal” from me. However I probably wasn’t going to finish that idea anyway but it still felt annoying to know that someone is making money of what you thought up.

    That person even took the exact same domain name.

  32. When I say “nobody” is going to steal your idea, that’s hyperbole. Sure, there have been cases where ideas have been stolen. I’m really talking about small probabilities rather than impossibilities. But I stand by my main points:

    1. Maybe few people care about your idea.
    2. It’s hard to steal ideas.
    3. It’s common for multiple people to have the same idea.
    4. Ideas take hard work to implement.

    I like the David Freedman quote above: “When you are young you are afraid people will steal your ideas; when you are old you are afraid they won’t.” I guess I’m old. I’ve seen how hard it is to transfer an idea/project to someone else, even when both parties are willing.

    The more profound an idea is, the harder it is to transfer it, unless the recipient has done some of the same homework you have. If they’ve thought about the same problem but are missing one piece that you can provide, they’ll grab that piece quickly, for good (e.g. handing over a software project) or for ill (e.g. stealing an idea). But otherwise, they’re going to have to do some of the work you did before they can appreciate the solution.

  33. And that makes me sad…

    I wish people *would* steal my ideas. My good ideas.

    That way, someone else can work on them while I work on my other good ideas. :)

    That, and I want my ideas to survive. If no one steals them, the chances of that are less than if everyone steals them.

    P.S. Clearly the above is only true because I don’t care much about being credited for my ideas. As long as they help the human race and make a difference, that’s much more important IMO.

  34. Beside the fact that usually NDAs are pretty useless, you will probably change your mind when someone will steal your ideas.

    I did when a former employee of a company I was leading published a rip-off of my personal work under his own name.

  35. NDA’s are essential to companies that 1) have intellectual property and 2) don’t patent their IP. That’s because your only remaining protection from a competitor totally stealing your work in IP is trade secret protection – which is pretty flimsy protection. To assert Trade Secret protection, one must take reasonable steps to assure that the trade secret remains, well, secret. That means companies regularly make employees and consultants sign NDA’s, otherwise, they will lose trade secret protection. Even if these people pose no competitive risk, if you let them see your IP without an NDA, you’re gonna to have a bad time asserting trade secret protection against you actual competitors.

  36. “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.

  37. 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.

  38. 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.

  39. 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.

  40. 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.

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