How do I protect my idea for a social networking site besides trademarking and copyright? Are there ways to protect the concept?
by Ethan Stone, Stone Business Law
It’s often not worth getting too hung up on legal protections. If you get to market fast and build up a big enough network of users, imitators will face a significant hurdle. That said, there are a couple of possibilities for legal protection.
Patent is the only way to protect an innovation that will be apparent to people using the site. You should consult a patent lawyer before you assume that there are or aren’t patentable inventions in your site. Be sure to do that quickly, since you need to file at least a provisional patent application within a year of when the invention was first published or in public use.
In addition to patent, you can protect some aspects of the site by trade secret. Anything that’s apparent to someone using the site isn’t secret and therefore can’t be protected this way. But any “secret sauce” in the background (e.g. algorithms that help predict who will be interested in whom or what) can be protected as a trade secret. To do so, you have to take reasonable steps to keep it secret. So it shouldn’t be included in any aspect of the site made available to the general public. That includes things you make available to users and developers, such as APIs. It also includes materials provided to employees, contractors, potential investors, customers, vendors (e.g. hosting service providers) or strategic partners who haven’t signed an NDA. You should follow a consistent policy (consistency is very important) of requiring people to sign an NDA before you disclose anything you want to protect as a trade secret. You should also think about taking sensible steps to prevent unauthorized access, such as good network security, password protection and/or encryption of certain files, disks or servers, and perhaps physical locks on some rooms or cabinets.
Ideally, you should document the steps you’re taking to protect your trade secrets. No need for anything elaborate, but you want to be able to point to it if necessary (and it’s a good way to think things all the way through). It is very important that your plans and policies are realistic and consistently followed. The last thing you want to do is write down a fantastically secure set of policies, file them away somewhere and forget about them. That just creates evidence of what you could have done and didn’t.
by Naomi Kokubo
If you have a unique invention, such as an original method for doing something, you can file for a patent. The problem is that it can take years to be granted, and it’s very expensive.
In that time, your competitors can leave you in the dust. Also, the money and time you invest in the patent will come out of your business.
In my opinion, the best thing is to get to market quickly and grab market share. As a startup with a new idea, you have first-mover advantage, and if you can capitalize on this to build your brand, lock up customers, and grow your business, you can keep the competition at bay.
A good example of this is YouTube. Google had it’s own video service, but they wound up buying YouTube because it had become the destination of choice with consumers. Same goes for most other successful websites, like Flickr, Mint, etc.