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I want to implement an idea that was discussed as one of many potential ideas that a company I used to work for might take once the project we were currently working on had launched.

However, the project never launched and the company has been dissolved for nearly a year. Now, one of those ideas is lingering in my mind and I have the capacity to implement it. As far as I know, no one else previously involved is planning to implement the idea.

The only thing I would be "taking" would be the idea, there was never any written or verbal planning concerned with the idea, and I have no creative content from the previous employer.

What steps should I take if I want to develop this project?

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closed as off topic by Jim G., squeemish, ChrisF, bytebuster, Karlson Jan 16 '13 at 20:25

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There was a case like this years ago in England. The person had an idea, work wouldn't implement it, so he quit and did it himself. His previous employer sued and won. – Simon O'Doherty Jan 15 '13 at 15:23
Yep. In the UK any idea you have in the course of your duties is the property of the company. – ChrisF Jan 15 '13 at 20:26
Oh. Was the idea suggested by you or somebody else? 'cause you know, there's a tiny bit of whatitscalled - ethics, I reckon, - involved. Would gladly upvote if your question were phrased like "Is it ethical...". If you replace an "idea" with a "wad of cash", or "a sack of rubies", would your behavior change? – Deer Hunter Jan 15 '13 at 20:31
The idea was suggested by another, but as I remember it now, he had just read about a similar product online. Is it the same if you use an idea you found online as opposed to someone you work with? An idea is hardly a wad of cash or sack of rubies. I have as many as 20 ideas a day and I still don't own any rubies. ;) – Nicholas Pickering Jan 15 '13 at 20:45
Re: difference between something found online and heard from a person you know - online information is common knowledge and mostly cheap as dirt whereas privately discussed approaches/implementation details may be extremely valuable (A-bomb comes to mind). If there already is a competing product in the market copycatting it is hardly novel, and you may be probably better off by pursuing other ideas that you generate for market niches yet unfilled. This is an aspect of your question that may be discussed separately in the "On Startups" SE site. – Deer Hunter Jan 16 '13 at 19:37
up vote 3 down vote accepted

As Chad suggests you really need to consult an attorney before investing time and money in a concept that someone else may own. Only a professional practicing in your jurisdiction area and in intellectual property(IP) can give you sound legal advice.

But before even going that far here is a litmus test of sorts. Some common sense questions to ask yourself.

Was the idea/concept copyrighted, trade marked, patented, otherwise documented?

If the answer to any of these is yes then even if the company has been dissolved there may well still be an 'owner' of the concept. This can be one of the principals, a creditor, or some form of holding company. Untangling the ownership can, and most likely would be, an expensive and time consuming ordeal.

To what level was the concept/idea developed?

Generally speaking broad concepts and ideas are difficult to claim as your IP. Where as the more detailed, thought out and planned concepts/ideas by their nature tend to prove ownership.

To use examples:

While brainstorming at work someone throws out the idea of X during the session.

  1. The idea is dropped quickly. Maybe even dismissed outright and the business doesn't invest any further time and energy on it.
  2. Everyone likes the idea and decides to invest additional time in discussing, prototyping, and documenting the concept. The concept is never implemented.
  3. Great (or even bad) idea and the company runs with it.

Obviously these are the extremes, but they illustrate my point in that the each represent the shades of gray that our legal and moral systems tend to deal with.

In most cases example one would be fair game. Well at least the lightest gray of the three.

Example two is the middle of the road. You're in a gray area here and a court could rule either way.

Example three, well it's pretty black. You'd be hard pressed to prove that the ideas was yours since it would be easy to prove that your previous employer had already implemented it.

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Even in case one there is a good chance that if the owner of the defunct companies IP finds out that the idea was created they could sue and win. – Chad Jan 15 '13 at 16:53
@Chad very true. But then again even, if the idea was discussed at the water cooler and never in an official capacity it's equally likely that they could win a legal claim. – Stephen Jan 15 '13 at 17:15
If they can prove it was talked about they may very well win. Personally if I wanted to work on it I would have a brand new Idea, and deny involvement in any discussions at the other business. Especially if nothing ever got documented. – Chad Jan 15 '13 at 17:17
"I can't recall ...." works wonders. – Stephen Jan 15 '13 at 17:53
A firm denial is better. I cant recall means you are willing to concede you may have forgotten. A firm denial means you did not have that conversation. Even if there is a recording I would deny that what I was doing now was what we were talking about there. – Chad Jan 15 '13 at 17:55

You need to review the agreements you signed with the original company. Many times any ideas, inventions, or other work product belong to that company. There is a potential that someone owns the Intellectual property rights from that company and they could have a claim against you if you use this idea.

Part of what will matter is how much work was put in to fleshing out this "Idea." If it never went beyond a comment of hey after we finish this we should work on a website to do some vague process, then there is less risk than if you spent time fleshing out what the site would do and you use that work product in your new company.

If you find out who owns the IP from your old company then you could possibly strike a deal with them for the rights to create that product. The risk is when you do that you reveal that you intend to develop a product originally conceived at the other company. Depending on who owns the IP they may not even realize that they own the Idea. If it is your old boss though they may just sign off on you developing it. I think it is worth finding out before you start working on the project.

I would probably consult a lawyer before taking any action on the product either way. The lawyer will save you the worry of not knowing which may save its cost in stress many times over.

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There are litigation cases where people have done what you said. Even if a contract isn't signed stating IP rights, if you discussed the plan with your previous employer while employed by them they can claim a right to the work (depending on where you live).

Example: (Outcome of the case).

There was another one in the UK which the ex-employee lost the case.

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IANAL, but if it is an interesting idea that no one else seems to care about you should just pursue it-- at least to the point where you can see if it amounts to something. No one can stop you from discretely experimenting with it or developing it.

Ideas by themselves are cheap, implementation is what counts. There are already a million ways a good idea can fail during before/during/after implementation. Sometimes the concept changes into something completely different than was was started.

Asking a lawyer "for permission" as a first-step will all but ensure the thing never sees reality. And anyway, if it is really successful, somebody will eventually try to sue whether the idea is purely original or not.

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