Whether you intend to license or venture an idea, you will need to protect it. Your point of difference is what makes your business valuable. It's natural to fear that your ingenuity might be stolen from you. Thankfully, there are numerous ways of preventing that from happening. After decades of applying for and receiving intellectual property--as well as having to defend my ownership in federal court--I've learned that it's wise to employ as many of them as possible. After all, you can't turn your vision into reality without reaching out to others for help.

1. Keep your ideas to yourself. This seems obvious enough, right? But when we get excited about a new idea, we're tempted to share it with our friends and family as soon as possible. In fact, I hear people discussing their ideas in elevators and bars at conferences all the time! Train yourself to resist this temptation. When an idea is just in its infancy, it's best to keep it hush-hush. At some point, yes, you will need to disclose your idea to the outside companies you begin working with. But until then, mum's the word.

2. Maintain an extensive paper trail. I conduct most of my business over the phone, as many entrepreneurs do. After each and every call, I recap what was discussed and what our next steps are in an email. The same goes for meetings I attend. I cannot overestimate how important it is to put things down in writing. The detailed record I had kept greatly helped me in my litigation case.

3. Look into the people and companies you're thinking about working with. These days, it's unusual for a company or an individual not to have a presence on the web. What are people saying about this company or this person? Search for "lawsuits" and "complaints." Doing a little background research might be extremely useful.

4. Rely as much as you can on referrals. Reach out to your network of contacts for referrals, rather than approaching a company or individual out of the blue.If you're curious about a specific person in particular, try to identify other people he or she has worked with to ask them about their experience. Getting referrals isn't difficult, but whatever you do, ask for more than one.

5. Ask industry experts what they think. Never forget that people love to talk. Ask people in your industry what their opinion is of certain companies. In my opinion, trade magazines are a highly underutilized resource. Call your industry's trade magazine and ask to speak to someone in the sales department. You will be surprised by how much information you gather. I've learned a great deal by talking to vendors as well. Ask if the company in question regularly works with outside creative people.

6. Study up on how best to use non-disclosure agreements. No two NDAs are the same. I have found that many innovators know that they should ask the people they show their ideas to sign an NDA, but not much else. For starters, there are different kinds of NDAs, including mutual NDAs, one-way NDAs, work-for-hire NDAs, and NDAs that include language that prevents an individual from attempting to circumvent your idea. Some NDAs are time-sensitive, whereas others are not. NDAs are particularly helpful when it comes to trade secrets. You must identify the most appropriate one for every situation you find yourself in. Will everyone you ask to sign your NDA actually sign your NDA? No. When you are asked to sign an NDA, please, consult an attorney. You need to know what you are agreeing to; NDAs can be sneaky.

7. Familiarize yourself with the tools provided by the United States Patent and Trademark Office. These tools include copyrights, trademarks, and patents. They can be extremely strategic and powerful, especially when they are used as part of a specific and targeted business strategy. If it's your first time out, please consult with an attorney before proceeding. However, you should not rely on your attorney for business advice. It's not your attorney's job to tell you whether you should file for any of these tools, simply how. The USPTO has surprisingly excellent customer service; don't hesitate to call them.

8. Make sure your contract is solid. A contract is only as good as the two parties that sign it. When it comes to signing a contract, you need legal advice. Hiring the right attorney for the right job is crucial! You must find one that has significant experience in your field. I prefer to hire attorneys that have had litigation experience, as well. (You never know.) When it comes to contracts, cutting corners and attempting to keep costs low is a mistake.

9. Get to market first. Establishing your product or business as the "original" is a great way of protecting it. Owning shelf space and space in consumers' minds is a form of protection in and of itself. Most retailers do not want to carry a "me-too" product. Put effort into building relationships with them to ensure that they don't. In the same vein, you may be able to get your manufacturer to sign a document stating that they will not create products that compete with yours. When I owned a guitar pick startup, we were able to achieve this. Our orders were so large that our manufacturer agreed to these clauses. If you successfully establish a likable brand, knockoffs will be seen as just that--copycats.

10. Follow your gut. Sometimes, it's wise to rely on your first impression. How have you been treated? Is this person responsive? Does he get back to you quickly? How you are treated before an official relationship is established is often very telling. In my experience, if a relationship gets off to a rocky start, it never truly gets better.

How are you protecting your creativity? Did I miss anything?

Published on: Dec 3, 2014
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.