Dear Rich: I have a question. I read recently that Victoria's Secret stole somebody's design for a bra. I have a design for something similar -- I don't want to say exactly what it is, because it kind of gives away the idea. How can I stop someone from stealing it? I'm so glad you asked. I'm familiar with the alleged bra theft, though I don't think it's fair to say -- at least not yet -- that Victoria's Secret violated the law. The woman claiming theft has a patent, but there are many ways to design around patents, and it's always possible to argue that the woman's patent is invalid. Alas, patent law is rife with misinformation regarding bra inventions, including the claim that Mary Phelps Jacobs invented the first bra in 1914 or that Herminie Cadolle of France invented it in 1889. (For those interested in the true story, I recommend Hoag Levins' wonderful explanation of brassiere inventions in his book American Sex Machines: The Hidden History of Sex at the U.S. Patent Office.)
Can you stop someone from stealing your idea? You can take preemptive steps -- one approach is to get a signed evaluation agreement (a modified nondisclosure agreement) before presenting your idea. The problem with that is that many big companies don't want to sign them because they're afraid it will prohibit them from developing similar ideas. Another approach is to seek patent protection. A patent -- as in this situation with Victoria's Secret-- gives the owner a hunting license to pursue infringers. If you're not sure about investing time and money in the full patent application, you can reserve your place in line at the Patent Office by filing a provisional patent application for $105. Nolo offers books and software to prepare a provisional application. And remember, whatever you've invented, please consider the safety issues.