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Can You Sue Someone for Stealing your Business idea?

Yes, anywhere in the world, you can sue someone for stealing your business idea. If you find out that your ideas or intellectual property have been stolen or used without permission, your first step is often to ask the person or company to stop.

Sometimes that works. When it doesn’t, you will need to decide if you want to take the matter to court. However, it is possible that the idea was not actually protectable at all.

Normally, an idea by itself is not protectable. For instance, the idea to secure a house by locking a metal bar to its doors is not protectable. But that same idea, when explicitly expressed in a drawing or prototype that shows the unique way this invention works, may be protectable under patent laws.

In the same vein, a business idea to make characters that transform into superheroes is not protectable. But the same idea graphically expressed is protectable under copyright law. The name of a hypothetical company is not protectable either unless you have either a federal trademark registration or have already used the name in commerce under your state’s applicable trademark laws.

Therefore, if you told this individual or company about your business idea without actually writing that idea down, naming it, or acquiring a patent on it (if it is an invention), then you are more or less out of luck. Have it in mind that ideas alone are not protected under intellectual property law.

However, there are two main ways that you would be able to Sue anyone or any entity for stealing your idea. The first is if you did, explicitly, reduce the idea to a protectable form before telling the company about it.

For instance, imagine that you approached an investor with a detailed plan of a new product or concept, complete with every stage well explained. They turn you down, and a month later, you see the same (or substantially similar) product or concept in grocery stores. This would constitute copyright infringement.

Howbeit, even if you did not reduce your idea to a protectable form as outlined above, consider whether the company or the individual signed any sort of written nondisclosure agreement before you presented it to them. Note that such agreement safeguards the disclosure of any secret ideas from unauthorized use.

Furthermore, if you made the individual or company sign such an agreement, you can examine it to determine your remedies. For instance, the agreement might specifically state a sum of damages for infringement, or state that an infringement would result in a breach of contract litigation.

Factors That Influence Your Next Action When Someone Steals Your Business idea

You’ve toiled and worked so hard to come up with what you believe to be a brilliant idea, but you find that someone has stolen it right from under you. Your next course of action will depend on several factors, including the type of idea, what kind of potential intellectual property protection it may have, and what steps you have already taken to protect it. Here are factors to consider;

  1. Copyright Protection

Note that copyright protection attaches to an idea once it is fixed in a tangible medium, for instance jotting down song lyrics on a piece of paper. At that point, the idea becomes a protected work with certain rights conveyed to the owner. Whether you file a copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office or not, your copyright attaches to the work!

Other Types of works that are eligible for copyright protection include “literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic,” such as “poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture,” according to the Copyright Office.

However, if you suspect someone has infringed on your copyright, you can send a cease and desist letter, informing them of your rights, and asking them to stop infringing, and putting them on notice that further acts of infringement could result in legal action.

If the infringer complies, you can move on with your life. If they don’t, you may have to consider legal action to get them to stop.

Note that if your copyright is not registered with the Copyright Office at the time of infringement, you are expected to show actual damages, such as profit loss, to prevail in court. If your copyright was registered with the Copyright Office at the time of infringement or within three months of publication of the work, you may seek up to $150,000 per act of willful infringement.

  1. Patent Protection

Have it in mind that a patent from the USPTO safeguards your rights as an inventor. If you already hold a patent for an invention and you believe someone has stolen it, you may have to file a patent infringement lawsuit to get them to stop using it and pursue compensatory and/or punitive damages.

However, it is imperative to understand that as of 2013 with the America Invents Act, the U.S. operates on a “first to file” system, which simply entails that it is usually advisable to file your patent as soon as is practically possible. Otherwise, you risk losing out to someone “stealing” your idea by filing their patent first.

  1. Trademark Protection

A trademark safeguards a word, phrase, or mark that notes the source of goods or services. Indeed you may be able to enforce your trademark rights in the state in which you do business as long as you can show that you used the work or mark in commerce to identify similar goods or services in the same state before the alleged infringer did so.

Howbeit, to effectively enforce your trademark across the country, you are expected to register the word, phrase, or mark with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). This action puts others on notice that you are the owner, and you can pursue legal action against infringers.

  1. Trade Secrets Protection

A perfect example of a trade secret is the recipe for Coca-Cola. Trade secrets can be any proprietary information that offers a business a competitive advantage but that isn’t afforded protection by a patent, trademark, or copyright. Note that the most critical aspect of protecting your trade secrets is taking reasonable efforts to keep them secret.

Once you believe someone has stolen your idea, you may sue them. Yes, a court may grant an injunction to stop them from using or disclosing it or award you compensatory and/or punitive damages. Egregious cases may even bring criminal charges.

Steps to Take When Someone Steals Your Business Idea

Even if you don’t intend to sue, it is advisable to seek legal advice. Note that the various areas of IP law (patents, trademarks, copyright, and trade secrets) are complicated, and your rights and remedies differ under each. Some infringement may also be criminal.

An experienced IP attorney can help you evaluate your options and determine your best course of action. Nonetheless, here are actions to consider;

  1. Send Requests to Stop Infringement

Ideally, your first course of action after discovering your IP has been stolen or used without permission is to contact the offender. Note that you or your lawyer can send a cease and desist letter requesting the person or company stop using your work. The letter should include, at a minimum:

  • Information about the work that has been infringed
  • The type of infringement (patent, copyright, etc.)
  • The action you want to be taken (remove material from a website, stop using a trademark, etc.)
  • A time limit to respond, so you know when to take further action if necessary.

For copyright infringement on the Internet, you have an extra avenue you can pursue under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). Note that the act allows you to send takedown notices to the infringer’s website host and other service providers, such as search engines and ad networks (Google Ad Sense, for example) serving the site.

The content of these letters is indeed the same as a cease and desist letter and should include an identification of the infringing material, where it is located (URL), and the action you expect the service provider to take, such as a search engine removing the site from its index. Since website owners can challenge to identify, you might have to do a little digging:

  • A WHOIS search will offer the name of the domain’s registrant, who will often also be the owner. Many domain name registrars, such as GoDaddy and Network Solutions, offer free WHOIS search functions.
  • Private registrations will show the name of the company providing the privacy service as a registrant. You can send a DMCA notice to this company as well.
  • Under DMCA, you may also be able to get a federal court order for a service provider to give you the identity of the alleged infringer.

If you also think someone has received a patent that infringes on yours, you can submit a Request for Re-examination to the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). A re-examination request is based on the concept that the patent was wrongfully granted since the invention was already described, in this case in your patent.

A patent examiner will take another look at the allegedly infringing patent. In the case of someone using a confusingly similar trademark, you may want to send a trademark violation letter to that person.

  1. Pursue Legal Action

Right before you can take legal action in a copyright infringement case; your work is expected to be registered. If it is not, do this as soon as possible, since you can’t recover damages for the time the work is unregistered. In the same vein, you can’t file a patent infringement suit until the USPTO has granted your patent, but you may be able to recover some damages from the time before the patent was issued.

Depending on the type of infringement, note that you may be able to file a civil case, a criminal complaint, or both. Copyright, trademark, and patent infringement can all be handled in civil court. Depending on the facts of your case, the damage you have suffered, and other factors, you may be able to get:

  • An injunction to stop the person from continuing to use your IP, including removing a product from the market
  • Payment of your losses
  • All or a share of the infringer’s profits from the use of your IP
  • Attorneys’ fees
  • Punitive damages

Have it in mind that most intellectual property infringement cases are handled in federal court, but if your case involves an unregistered trademark or one registered only with your state, you will have to file in state court. Some cases of IP theft may also be criminal.

The Economic Espionage Act of 1996 makes some types of trade secret theft federal crimes. Counterfeiting and piracy are also criminal acts.

In the United States, you can report counterfeiting and piracy to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center if the goods are for sale online. If the goods are being imported from other countries, you can contact the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol and the National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center.

The FBI’s Financial Institution Fraud Unit handles criminal infringements of non-digital, non-Internet related works. Your intellectual property lawyer can help you determine if the infringement of your work is criminal and where to report it. If you choose to also file a civil suit, your attorney can help you file it and build a strong case.


First, in order for your business idea to receive legal protection as an intellectual property, it is expected to be fixed in a tangible medium. If you have only thought about the idea, you don’t have any legal recourse if someone else uses—or, perhaps in your mind, “steals”— it.

The type of idea will determine whether it may enjoy copyright, trademark, patent, or trade-secret protection. While many instances of stolen ideas can be handled amicably among private parties, sometimes infringers won’t cooperate. In this instance, it is best to get legal advice on how best to handle the situation and reclaim your rights.