By Rob Hassett
Frequently asked questions about intellectual property and corporate law:
Question: I have two ideas that I am interested in selling. One is for a new television series that is based, in part, on historic and scientific knowledge. The other is for a new technology for a battery that would be able to power a golf cart across the country with one charge. Can I make money selling or licensing my ideas? If so, how?
Answer: You would have a much better chance of selling the battery idea than the television show. Even the smaller cable networks receive, on average, more than 100 pitches for television shows per day.
In order for you to make money by selling or licensing an idea, the prospective user needs to have a good reason to pay you. Here are some things you can do to make sure your idea pays off:
1. You could apply for a patent. A patent can protect an idea. It’s very unlikely that the idea for the television show could be patented, but it’s likely the battery technology could be. If you were able to obtain a valid and sufficiently broad patent for the battery, there is a good chance you would be able to sell or license your invention for a large sum of money or a substantial royalty.
2. You could think of a unique and clever name and have it registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Office to prevent theft. This is more important with respect to the television show than the battery technology. If a network representative wants to use the name for the show, and it’s been registered as a mark, he or she is more likely to enter into an arrangement with you.
3. You could require that any prospective buyer or licensee enter into a non-disclosure agreement before disclosing your concept. If an idea is truly confidential, a properly crafted non-disclosure agreement will prevent anyone that signs the agreement from using or disclosing the concept. If you can demonstrate the superiority of your battery, you can probably obtain a signed non-disclosure agreement before disclosing how the battery works.
On the other hand, regarding the television program, most television networks will generally not sign a non-disclosure agreement. In fact most networks will insist that anyone that would like to submit an idea for a show, first sign a release providing that the network is not liable for using the show unless the network uses copyrightable material (copyrights protect only expression and not ideas). The network could then use the main idea of the show without violating any copyrights and therefore without having any obligation to you.
4. You may be able to offer more than just the idea. For example, if you are a recognized authority on batteries, even without applying for a patent, the purchaser/licensee may want your help and input in commercializing the battery. If you have a record of creating desirable shows or, if the show is about history or science and you are an expert in the field who could appear on the show, the purchaser/licensee will likely be more inclined to do a deal with you.
If you want to sell your idea, you should do your best to add some legal protections and otherwise take the steps indicated above. If you are not able to take any of these steps, you should probably either use the idea to start your own business or think of another idea.
Rob Hassett is an attorney in technology, entertainment and corporate law with the Atlanta law firm of Casey Gilson P.C. He also teaches in the professional education program at Georgia Tech and is the co-author of a volume on Internet Law of a leading treatise on entertainment law. If you have a question about intellectual property or corporate law, you may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This column and any answers provided are being provided for general information only, and do not, and will not, constitute legal advice. Readers should always discuss legal matters with their attorneys.