We started to watch the movie Flash of Genius last weekend. It is based on the true story of the inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper and how Ford allegedly stole his idea. The boys wanted to know how Ford could do such a thing so yesterday morning in the car we spoke about protecting ideas. I covered three approaches: patents, trade secrets and winning in the marketplace. Patents can be very expensive and time consuming to defend (that was the problem the inventor in the movie had). Unfortunately the intelectual property legal system benefits those with deep pockets. I told the boys of one of my companies which recently got sued by patent troll, and how we are trying to settle even thought we don't believe that their patents are valid.
Keeping the workings of the invention secret can be a good approach but is not always feasible. In the case of the intermittent windshield wiper anyone could have bought one and see how it worked. However, it might at least give you a head start in the marketplace, so it can work well in combination with simply beating your competitors in the market with better execution.
In the movie the inventor fights Ford for over a decade, at great cost to his personal life and family. He eventually prevails and gets a huge amount of money, but we concluded no amount of money could make up for the years of his life lost.