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Workshop: Owning an idea


Can you own an idea? What a concept! You can own the idea, but so can everyone else. So, when is an idea unique (and that doesn't mean complicated: many great new ideas are fresh takes on an old one) enough that it could become yours to "own"? How might you keep that idea "safe" from others who might use your idea, claim it as theirs, and use it to make money? This workshop will explore the concept of "intellectual property" and steps you can take to protect your ideas.


"Intellecual property" refers to ideas that are "market-worthy." In other words, they are ideas that can make someone money. Researchers in businesses and universities create new products and processes everyday. In order to protect their ideas, they cannot always talk about what it is they are doing in a lot of detail without risking having their ideas stolen. In nanoscience and technology, the ability to repeatedly create a self-assembly is a patentable process. Thinking back on the product you researched in From Concept to Consumer and the methods and processes you modeled in Can We Create a Self-assembly?, would you know how to "protect" those methods and processes from a competitor? Researchers in businesses and universities face this same question every day.


You have a great idea! Now what?
Watch this: Na-Nose Video
  • Questions to discuss after watching the video:
    • How is the product described?
    • Could you describe to someone else what the product does?
    • Could you tell someone how to build the product so that they could replicate it?
    • Why do you think the creators of Na-Nose made the YouTube video?
Up to now, you've investigated existing products as well as created some processes of your own. Before all of these conversations, have you ever thought about all the considerations that have to go into the decision to create and sell something? Think about these categories:
  • Technical considerations: Do you need to do more research? What are the hurdles? Can you repeat the process? Is it cost-effective? Do you need new equipment?
  • Regulatory considerations: What agencies (i.e. Environmental Protection Agency, Food and Drug Administration, etc.) will have rules and regulations you have to follow?
  • Societal considerations: Does society need your product? Will they accept it at a cost that still makes you money?
  • Manufacturing considerations: Can you use existing processes? If not, what do you need to change and how much will it cost? Do you need to buy new equipment?
  • Quality and customer considerations: How will you make sure that your product is reliable? How will you control your processes to insure that the quality stays high?
  • Legal considerations: Do you need patents, trademarks, or copyrights? Do you need to protect your idea like a company secret?
Thinking back on the process you used to create your self-assembly product in Can We Create a Self-Assembly?, how would you begin to "own your idea?" To aid your thinking, below are some details from Eric Goldman, a well-known law professor at Santa Clara University's School of Law:
  • Copyrights protect written expression. If your contractor or partner writes down an idea, he may have a copyright on the writing. In other words, he may have the right to keep you from copying his words. But he can’t keep you from reading those words and using the idea they describe. You can even write up the idea in your own words (provided your words are truly original).
  • Trademarks protect brand names, slogans, logos, and other words and symbols that distinguish commercial offerings. Trademark rights belong to the person or company that uses the mark in commerce (among other requirements), not to the person who developed the idea for the mark.
  • Trade secrets law actually can protect ideas, but only “stolen” ideas. The law forbids use of a business secret by someone who got the information without authorization or through a confidential relationship. If a contractor or partner tells you her idea, without an NDA, it’s obviously not a trade secret.
  • Patents protect products and processes, not ideas. To get a patent, the would-be patent-holder has to invent a product or develop a process (and that’s only the first step). A mere idea for improving your product or service doesn’t qualify.
(from Eric Goldman's The Tech Contracts Blog)

Together with your self-assembly team, use what you learned from the Industry Specialist's presentation and the discussion of the Na-Nose video to help you think through the steps you would take to protect your "intellectual property." For now, focus on the legal considerations. At this point, what type of legal protections would your idea need? Download the Owning an Idea Text Frame (Word document below) to record the details about the problem and at least one solution. You'll be able to reference back to your ideas during Nano@Work when you are meeting and talking with our nanoscience and technology business partners!

Why this works

Using lessons learned from others who have gone through a process before you is often a very productive and helpful step in accomplishing your goals.

Wrap Up

Choose one of the other categories of considerations above to discuss with a friend. What are the most exciting aspects of this process? Use the Roadmap to Great Conversation if you get stuck.


  • Headphones (optional)


  • New Product Development Process, in the files at the bottom of this web page


Based on

  • Original work by McREL
Sharon Unkart,
Dec 27, 2012, 3:39 PM
John Ristvey,
Feb 2, 2013, 8:48 AM