Every better mousetrap starts with an idea. You can’t patent the idea, however, only the device. Copyrights protect the expression of your idea, whether in artistic form or in written language or musical notation. And once you have advanced your idea to a product for the marketplace, registering a trademark might be important. But again, that’s not protecting your idea.

The best way to look at an idea might be to see it as a seed with potential. It could be the next best thing since sliced bread but to find out requires getting the idea from head to reality; the process, in addition to being complicated, can evoke a certain level of paranoia. How can you begin to get your inspiration to market if you find you hold the attitude of Gollum toward his precious?

Some ideas that could help

Let’s acknowledge that fear of seeing your idea stolen is understandable. It can happen. However, it doesn’t happen as often as you think. A lot depends on how much care you take handling your information in the various venues that exist for generating possible investor interest.

Walking around with a stack of blank non-disclosure agreements might give you a sense of security, but it could also work against you in some settings. For example, experts note that if you are speaking with legitimate investors and mentors, they likely will refuse to sign confidentiality agreements before hearing anything about your plans. They are not in the business of stealing ideas. To do so would be to risk their integrity.

At the same time, if you are approached through email, at an industry conference or networking event, and some new acquaintance begins inquiries, you might want to respond with that nondisclosure agreement. Shy of that, limit what you talk about. This might also apply if you turn to online crowd-funding sources. Keep your conversation broad — about what market issue your idea addresses without getting into specifics. Later, after building trust with a particular resource, you might pursue things further.

Speaking with competitors might seem to go against the grain, but a strategic partnership might be something that could benefit both your competitor and you. A nondisclosure agreement might well be appropriate, and enlisting the help of a skilled intellectual property attorney to negotiate broader partnership terms would be wise.