There are various ways to protect an idea. There are legal methods and then there are psychological / secret sauce methods. Now when people don’t have the methods or the madness to create a product, they know they have to find someone to help them but are scared someone is going to steal their idea. They should be wary but sometimes you just have to cut your losses and go for it. Here are some methods that can help though.
Patents are a legal way to protect physical product designs, processes, and a few other types of items. Patents are expensive but you can get what is called a provisional patent. This is a low cost solution to save your self.
Copyrights are for works of art, written works, and a few other types of items such as circuit board design.
Trademarks protect catchphrases, symbols, and other items that represent a companies intellectual property. It is a complicated subject. See the patent and trademark office for more information.
When Contracting Work Out
Now there is a clever way of protecting your idea when using contractors to do your work for you. You segment the project up enough that nobody can reconstruct the rest of it just by seeing what is going on. This allows all the parts to be made and then stitched together easily in the middle. This can be troublesome sometimes though.
Most companies are going to laugh in your face or just straight up tell you no when you ask them to sign an NDA. There is too much liability and trouble in it for them. They generally will only laugh at you for asking if you are just one person. Now if there is a lawyer involved and some large business dealings that will be different. Businesses are pitched ideas all the time and asked to have NDAs signed. This opens up troubles for them if their company is already doing Research and Development on something similar. They don’t want sued over someones misinterpretation of what is going on.
If you are doing work with a company you are sure of you can just use NDAs or contracts. This is the general setup when a company such as Caterpillar contracts an engineering company to do CAD work for them. This generally is only helpful to do when working with companies within the USA and some other countries with good legal systems. Working with countries such as China or other Asian countries is difficult because their manufacturers tend to copy the molds and sell them off to others for knockoff purposes. In more shady situations you have to resort to the segmentation method.
When Pitching an Idea
When you pitch an idea to someone you want to use a black box method. For instance let’s say you are pitching some software. You tell them what information goes in and what the information looks like when it comes out. You don’t tell them the internal workings in between that would give away what is special about your software.
Sometimes it isn’t what is in the middle that matters and it is the execution of the project. In this case you pitch the main parts and why you feel the team is at an advantage. There will always be miniscule details that make the difference that don’t get disclosed all at once.