Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Apple vs. Samsung. Yummie Tummie vs. Spanx. One lawsuit covers phones and the other underwear, but both cases have something big in common.

These two sets of competitors have put a spotlight on the thorny issue of patent ownership. And on a larger level, they’ve also opened up a debate about how we develop, build on and ultimately come to “own” concepts and designs.

The technology industry is well-versed in the importance of filing patents, given the speed with which their industry moves and the overlap of ideas from inventor to inventor. If you think of it first, it behooves you to get paid for thinking of it first.

(Even if you didn’t think of it first, being the first one to the patent office puts the burden of proof on everyone else, as with the “patent troll”–people who buy patents with the intention of licensing a concept for profit, rather than developing it themselves.)

Other industries—fashion, food, furniture, kitchen gadgets, and so on—are less accustomed to having to defend designs with legal ownership of concepts, though copycats of original ideas are a frequent source of insider scuffles.

With the rise of social media, we’ve also ended up with an interesting angle on the debate between “inspired by” and “ripped off,” as designers discover via crowd-sourced justice that their designs have been . . . borrowed.

If you’re in the business of creating—whether it’s necklaces, new apps, advertising campaigns, logos, or a new business model –here are a few tips to make sure your ideas stay yours (and others’ ideas stay theirs, too):.

  • It’s an amazing idea! Now make sure someone else didn’t have it first. Whether you’re talking patent-ready concepts, or just a fantastic tagline for your business, do some research up front to make sure you’re not poaching anyone else’s territory. Start with Google, and then stop by the USPTO to check out existing patents and trademarks for overlap. By doing a little homework up front, you avoid the frustration of putting time and effort into an idea you can’t ultimately use.
  • If you thought of it first, protect your intellectual and artistic property. There are many ways to prevent others from using your intellectual property, and if your idea or invention is related to your livelihood, take these options seriously. None may end up not being necessary, but it’s better to err on the side of caution.
  • Don’t give in to the temptation to borrow great ideas. As the old adage goes, there might be “nothing new under the sun,” but that doesn’t give you the freedom to borrow liberally from what others have created. Even if you think no one will ever notice that your logo looks a lot like that other company’s logo, or that your new service offering is awfully like that other business’, you could do much more damage by poaching than you could by having to use a somewhat less awesome idea of your own.

While you may never be the target of a billion-dollar lawsuit, or in possession of an idea that everyone is lining up to steal, your intellectual property matters—and so does the intellectual property of others.

By staying on the right side of the law and good business ethics you’ll save yourself trouble (and countless sleepless nights!) down the line.