We get asked several times a week about protecting ideas. Most of these questions are from people with ideas for new apps and go something like this: “I have an idea for a great app. How do I know the company I hire to develop it won’t steal it from me?”or “I want to hire an app programmer, but they’ll have to sign an NDA [a nondisclosure agreement] before I’ll tell them my idea.” We blogged about this in our post How can I keep someone from stealing my great app idea? Because we keep hearing questions about NDAs, here are a few more thoughts on the subject.
First, as Dave Bates of CompleoSoft noted in his comment to our original blog on NDAs, you should be able to describe your app project in sufficient detail to give the developer an idea of what you’re wanting to do without giving away the super-secret aspects of the idea. As Dave puts it, I can describe a soft drink without telling you the secret formula. If I ask you about building a plant to make my soft drink, you shouldn’t need the secret formula to tell me about your qualifications, experience, and past projects or what you estimate it will cost to build the plant.
Many app ideas are variations on a prior idea. For example, when we talk to people wanting quotes to develop mobile apps, they’ll sometimes tell us things like “My app is a game similar to [insert name of hot game app of the week], but with an interactive sound track that changes based on data supplied by a source at the player’s location. I’m going to have to have an NDA to tell you anything else.” For this example, the basic structure of the game is not really secret as it is modeled after an existing app. The unique aspect in this example is that the game uses a localized data source to control the game’s soundtrack. So, you could discuss your idea with developers in enough detail to determine which developer to hire without necessarily giving away the secret. Could the developer go out and develop a similar app after talking to you? Sure, but if your idea is a derivation of some hot app of the week, that part of the idea is already out there. The value is in the details of how your app is different, all of which you may not have to disclose to identify a developer for your project.
As noted in our last post on NDAs, what really makes an app idea valuable is execution. There are lots of ideas out there that never become hot selling apps. In fact, this is not limited to app ideas – here’s a recent post exploring this same issue in the context of ideas for movie scripts. That said, there is value in protecting a unique idea during the pre-development period.
So, what can you do to protect your idea when you’re trying to hire a mobile app developer?
- Disclose the minimum needed to get a quote or other information you need to make your decision.
- Put a copyright symbol on any written materials you provide and consider registering your copyright.
- Most important of all, hire a reputable developer.
We’re not saying NDAs are never needed when you’re trying to find an app developer, just that there’s a time and place for them. That time and place will vary depending on your particular circumstances. If you’re unsure whether you need one, you may want to hire an attorney to advise you about your rights and how to protect them.