Secrecy is often the only protection available for a new idea. Total secrecy is self-defeating because evaluating the idea almost always requires asking knowledgeable people about it. Practical shortcomings doom most ideas. Evaluation is essential and often involves taking reasonable risks.
Here is a six step process that will let you ask about your idea with a reasonable degree of safely:
1) Look up published information relating to your idea. Company websites and search engines are excellent resources at the beginning of a project. Sometimes similar products turn up there. Many times one of the best sources of information on what's been thought of in a field is a patent novelty search.
2) Make a first cut at defining what's new: Only new features (or new combinations of old features) are potentially patentable. Write a description of the idea with the new parts separated from the old in order to identify the old parts that you can discuss openly. One way to do this is to write a two part description of the idea or invention. The first part describes something improved by your idea along with all the shortcomings and problems associated with this admittedly old technology. The second part of the description lays out some combination of characteristics and features that you think might be new and that can distinguish your invention from the ‘old stuff’ described in Part I.
3) Ask the experts: Three ways of setting up a line of questions based on known features of your idea, invention or product are:
Useful ideas are solutions to problems shared by many people. If there is no shared problem, there is no market for its solution. Asking an expert about a known problem is a good way to pick up background information.
4) Ask the customer: Market researchers try to find out about benefits that a potential customer wants. They try to avoid focusing on the features of the proposed product or on the technical details describing how it will provide the benefits. One reason for asking about benefits and avoiding questions about features is to keep the new idea secret. Another reason is that functional questions do not address the potential customer's desires -- they miss the whole point of doing market research, which is finding out what benefits interest the end user.
5) Ask vendors: Many times a good first estimate of the cost of a new product can made by talking to manufacturers about old components used in the new product. Asking about actual old components (or about old components similar to the new ones) discloses nothing. There are at least three other ways to consider getting information from a potential supplier: a) use a confidential disclosure agreement; b) get an initial estimate on an old item similar to the new item; or c) isolate the new item from the rest of the product and ask about it without discussing how it is used or how it relates to other components. Think of this as a jigsaw puzzle, and ask yourself if what is being disclosed is a big enough part of the puzzle so that someone looking at just that piece could figure out the rest of the picture.
6) Revise and recycle. After taking any one of these approaches to asking without telling, go back to your working definition of novelty and revise it. If the new description of the idea still looks like a winner, look into patent applications, prototype manufacture, etc.
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