What to Do with a Really Good Idea

By Pike, George H. | Information Today, October 2016 | Go to article overview

What to Do with a Really Good Idea


Pike, George H., Information Today


While I think that I'm a pretty smart person, I don't think I'm terribly creative. I have a hard time coming up with good stories to use as hypothetical problems for in-class assignments. When I watch TV or movies, I often ask myself, "How did they come up with that idea?" When I go to the store and see some new product, I'll think--as many people likely do--"That's clever" (or "awful," depending on the product). And I'll wonder, "How did they come up with that?"

So, people who are more creative than I am can have some amazing ideas. Sometimes, the people who come up with these ideas are working for the company or business that needs them to be generated, whether it's a TV or movie studio, manufacturer, distributor, or marketing department. However, when the creative mind is not an employee, but instead brings his or her ideas to the company, complications can ensue.

My Little Pony

One such creative enterprise is the toy industry. From Lincoln Logs and the Chutes and Ladders game that I played with as a kid, through to the latest generation of Transformers and Barbies, to a popular new game called Pie Face!, toys are an $84 billion industry that relies heavily on ideas. In September, a trial began involving My Little Pony Rainbow Shimmer, a plastic unicorn doll filled with a glitter liquid and sold by Hasbro. Inventor Elinor Shapiro claims that this toy was her idea.

Shapiro says she came up with the concept of snow globe animal characters. A former executive in the toy industry, she pitched the idea to Hasbro, which passed on it. A year later, Shapiro saw a My Little Pony Rainbow Shimmer and sought compensation from Hasbro. When no agreement could be reached, she sued the toy manufacturer.

Lonely Stepchildren

Ideas are somewhat the lonely stepchildren of intellectual property in that they are tangentially related to its two major areas--copyright and patent--but don't get full protection from either of them. Copyright law specifically denies any copyright protection for ideas. Section 102 of the Copyright Act (law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/17/102) states, "In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea...." The reason for this is that copyright is intended to protect creative expression--the manifestation of an idea in a tangible form--while leaving the underlying idea free to be used by others. James Cameron can have a great idea for a story about two people from different social classes who meet and fall in love on a doomed ocean liner, only one of whom will survive (guess which one). But until that idea is expressed in the script and movie Titanic, nothing is copyrighted.

But as with much of the law, it may not be quite so clear. In 2005, actor Hayden Christensen and his brother had an idea for a television show named Housecall, which involved a physician who serves as a "concierge" doctor to the rich and famous of Malibu, Calif. Their production company developed a number of written products--all of which would be clearly copyrighted--and pitched the idea to the USA Network, which declined. Four years later, USA debuted Royal Pains, a show about a concierge doctor to the rich and famous of the Hamptons in New York.

Instead of pursuing a case of copyright infringement, the Christensens sued for breach of implied contract. They said it's accepted in the industry that creative ideas are presented for prospective purchase, and an expectation exists that compensation would be paid if the ideas are used. …

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