Back in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, second tier studios like Universal-International and Republic made B movie after B movie with a recurrent theme:
The kindly, gray haired inventor, toiling selflessly in his basement laboratory, finally discovers A) an incredible new military weapon, B) a formula to cure hemorrhoids, or C) a secret device to turn camel dung into hard, brilliant diamonds. Getting wind of the discovery, Otto Heimlich, the evil president of Trans-Global Megalith, sends henchmen to break into the inventor’s lab to steal A) the Secret Death Ray Machine, B) The Secret Formula, or C) The Secret Plans! The thugs are caught in the act, a tussle ensues, and the aged, brave inventor is left A) dead, B) blind, or C) in a blue funk.
Grief stricken, swearing vengeance and hurling herself at the impenetrable gray walls of the vile conglomerate is sweet, pretty Mary Wilson, who is either A) the inventor’s daughter, B) his niece, or C) his ward. The evil president and his thugs laugh fiendishly at the futility of Mary’s rage. Then, from out of nowhere, appears a brave soul who rushes to her side. It is A) the handsome, fearless detective, B) the handsome, fearless reporter, or C) the handsome, fearless patent attorney.
I won’t bore you with the rest of the tale except to say that it represents an extremely odd phenomenon. Some evil specter implanted this story into the brains of naïve, young inventors-to-be where it became almost impossible to dislodge. Now grown, millions of inventors will swear that Otto Heimlich still exists, maneuvering to steal their discoveries and inventions.
Never mind that poor Otto would now be well over 100, needing a walker to lurk about. In their minds, he’s still out there ready to steal their inventions, and for sure they’ll A) die, B) go blind, or C) go into a blue funk. When someone innocently says, “Tell me about your invention.” You can see the panic flash in their eyes.
I try to combat this paranoia with sweet reasoning, but I fail more often than not. Heimlich’s maneuvers are too powerful! (Maybe his goons really are everywhere!) Undaunted, I press on, even achieving an occasional success. I use what I call Four Irrefutable Reasons Why Otto Heimlich Will Not Steal Your Idea:
1. Why Should Otto Invite a Lawsuit?
Even without a patent, courts have ruled time and again that if you reveal your product idea to a company in good faith, they can’t simply steal it and throw you out into the street.
The trick is to have proof that you thought of the idea first. You’re smart enough to know how to do that. You have documented, witnessed notes. You’ve registered the idea with the Patent Office. You’ve left a paper trail covering your dealings with the nefarious Otto Heimlich. In order to combat your mountains of evidence, Otto would have to manufacture fake documents and try to get his employees to perjure themselves in an open courtroom. That’s much too risky for the sly Mr. Heimlich.
If I had an appointment with Heimlich to show him my product, the minute I got back to my office I’d send him a thank you letter confirming our meeting and reviewing the selling points of my idea. When Heimlich got the letter, he’d know it wasn’t sent just because my mama taught me to be polite. He’d recognize it for exactly what it was: another particle of evidence showing the true ownership of the idea. He’d know I was laying out a paper trail, which is exactly what I’d want him to know. The thicker my correspondence folder gets, the less inclined Heimlich is to get cute.
I’ve been licensing new product ideas to large and small companies for almost twenty years and no company has ever tried to steal an idea from me. It’s not because the presidents of these companies are such wonderful, upstanding folks.
It’s simply not good business.
2. You Can Be Bought Cheap
Heimlich can pinch a penny as hard as the next guy, but you’re the biggest bargain to come down the pike in years. Let’s say you get 5% royalty. That’s chicken feed to Heimlich. For example, assume your product costs $2.00 to produce. That means Heimlich will sell it for five. Do the math. You get 25 cents, he gets $3.00. Who wouldn’t go for that deal?
But wait, here’s the beauty part: your 25 cents doesn’t even come out of his pocket. It comes out of his customer’s. In other words, when Heimlich is figuring the cost to produce your product, the 25 cents is included right along with the nuts and bolts, the plastic and the steel, the labor and the shipping. Your royalty is just one more entry in a whole list of costs that gets totaled up, marked up, and passed on to the customer. Why try to steal from you when it’s so painless to simply pay the royalty?
3. You May Go Elsewhere
Let’s say you have an appointment with Heimlich and show him your unpatented idea. “That’s old stuff,” says Heimlich, lying through teeth. “We’re already working on exactly the same idea.” Not only is Heimlich risking legal action (see pint#1), but he’s risking something even worse. Figuring you struck out with Trans-Global Megalith, what’s to prevent you from taking the idea across the street to Heimlich’s archrival, the fiendish Whitwell McCade from Fearsome Industries? So now, not only would Heimlich be risking a legal battle, he’d no longer have an exclusive on the very idea that he’s attempting to steal.
It’s simply not good business.
4. The Biggest, Most Important Reason of All
Assume the product idea you presented to Heimlich was pretty good. It’s one he could make a nice profit on without a big investment. If you can come up with one good idea, you can probably come up with another one, and another after that. If your first idea was pretty good, your next one might be sensational. Why would Heimlich jeopardize a potentially valuable relationship just to steal a few bucks? He may be a mean old bastard, but nobody ever said he was stupid. Get the idea?
Stealing is simply not good business.
That’s really the whole point. The people who run these companies may be mean, but they aren’t stupid. They won’t steal your idea because it’s not a smart move, pure and simple.
Please understand: there are still plenty of crooks around and you certainly should patent your idea if it’s warranted. However, many ideas (maybe even most) can’t or shouldn’t be patented. So now what? Every idea has value to someone, if it can be successfully and profitably marketed, but you’ll never know if you don’t show it!
I beg you, please don’t panic and freeze in your tracks when a company refuses to sign your non-disclosure agreement. Most of them won’t. You have to assume that companies aren’t run by neo-Heimlichs, waiting to steal your idea. It’s far more profitable for them to do business with you as an ally instead of having you feeding ideas to their competitor.
If you’re not comfortable going out to sell your idea yourself, that’s OK; we’re not all cut out to be marketing people. Instead, get someone like me to do it. That’s my business. But whether you do it, or I do it for you, is beside the point. The main thing is to get your idea in play. If your product idea’s good, if it makes commercial sense, some company out there will be willing to pay you for letting them market it.
But first they have to see it.