"They Stole My Idea" Isn"t Always Enough For A Lawsuit
The bare allegation that someone else stole your idea for a business (or a product or a work of art) is ordinarily not enough to win a lawsuit, not under copyright law, trademark law, patent law, or any other intellectual property law.
The law does not protect generalized expressions of ideas; the law protects the implementation of ideas.
There's good reason for that.
Though some ideas for businesses are certainly better than others, and though some ideas really are great ideas that no one had before, we cannot justify the burden and expense of a lawsuit every time someone, somewhere vaguely claims that they once had a similar idea.
Fact is, successful businesses, useful inventions, and compelling works of art are all, as Thomas Edison - himself more a shrewd businessman than a genius inventor - is reputed to have said, invention is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.
Mark Zuckerberg didn't come up with the idea for an online social network, register the domain Facebook.
com and collect a few billion dollars.
Thomas Edison didn't come up with the idea of stringing electrical wire in a vacuum, throw a light bulb together in an afternoon, and then enjoy his empire.
Cormac McCarthy didn't come up with the idea for a post-apocalyptic novel, shoot off a rough draft, and collect his Pulitzer and movie residuals.
They all had ideas - or, better stated, took pre-existing ideas - and then made them work well.
An idea for a light bulb is not a light bulb.
Making an idea for a light bulb go off outside of your head requires a tremendous amount of work, patience, dedication, and perseverance.
As Edison said when asked about his many failed light bulb designs, "I have not failed 1,000 times.
I have successfully discovered 1,000 ways to not make a light bulb.
" Which brings us to the inspiration for this post.
One of my kids' favorite shows was WordWorld, which is probably better summed up by a picture than any actual words.
It's a fun little show in which a couple animals, themselves constructed from their own names, use letters to interact and build with various objects in their world.
It's cute, entertaining, and reasonably educational.
What I did not know was the litigious animosity in the show's history.
In the 1990s, Kyle Morris and William Kirksley filed several patents regarding animated captioning "coordinated with oral-word utterances.
" In short, their idea was to show the words coming from the mouth of the speaker in a children's movie or television program.
Morris invited Don Moody to develop a new children's television show around the concept, but, after a falling-out, Moody left and started the successful Word World show that was broadcast on PBS beginning in 2007.
Morris later sued Moody, alleging both patent and copyright infringement, including a claim that he owned a copyright on the phrase "where words come alive" that Word World uses as its slogan, and a claim in the "teaching methodology" that he had developed.
The United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, however, dismissed Morris' patent and copyright claims and the Federal Circuit affirmed without an opinion.
In short, Word World was similar to the original idea, and almost certainly took elements from it, but not enough to constitute patent or copyright infringement.
That is, Morris had an idea, tried to make it work, brought on help to make it work, but, for whatever reason, couldn't get it to succeed.
One of the people he brought on ran with the idea, made some changes and made it work.
The lightbulb actually went off.
So who, as a matter of law, "invented" WordWorld? The same person who "invented" the lightbulb: the one who made it work.