Recently Facebook was ordered to pay $500 million to technology company ZeniMax in an intellectual property lawsuit over virtual reality headset Oculus Rift. ZeniMax complained that Oculus VR founder Palmer Luckey had violated a nondisclosure agreement made when he was developing the headset with assistance from John Carmack of iD Software, a ZeniMax affiliate. Carmack went to work for Luckey after Oculus VR raised $2.4 million on Kickstarter, and Luckey then sold Oculus VR to Facebook for $2 billion. Facebook plans to appeal the verdict.

This lawsuit illustrates the potential for intellectual property theft, which can be expensive and painful. If you’re an inventor, here are some tips to protect your intellectual property, avoid an expensive lawsuit or win your case if you need to go to court.

Keep an Inventor’s Notebook

Keeping an inventor’s notebook enables you to document when you conceived your idea and who has seen it. It also helps you prepare your patent application.

Your notebook should have permanent binding with no removable pages and a protective cover. Ideally it should have gridlines on the pages for sketches and numbered pages. To document the sequence of your idea’s development, date every entry and do not tear out any pages or leave any blank pages or spaces. Use a pen and cross out mistakes rather than whiting them out. Get someone to sign your entries as a witness, and have them sign a nondisclosure agreement.

Draw Concept Sketches

Your notebook should include sketches to illustrate the concept of your invention. Label your sketches as Figure 1, Figure 2, Figure 3, etc. Use your sketches to illustrate your written descriptions by referring to your figures when listing steps or diagramming steps in a flow chart. Include sketches of variations of your invention, even if you’re not sure you will produce them, just in case you do decide to in the future. If you make any sketches on paper that are separate from your notebook, attach it to your notebook with a date.

If you know how to use computer drawing programs, you may want to develop digital versions of your sketches to flesh out your idea. While this may be useful for your creative process, for legal purposes, hand-drawn sketches provide more protection than electronic drawings, according to intellectual property company CreateIP. So, you should be sure to include hand-drawn sketches as well as digital ones.

File for a Patent

Filing for a patent is the best way to protect your intellectual property. Holding a patent discourages competitors from trying to steal your invention. It also gives you leverage to force a legal settlement in case your ideas are stolen.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office provides an online guide to the patent filing process. You should start by doing a patent search to make sure your idea hasn’t already been patented by someone else. While it’s possible to do your own patent search, for the best results you should hire an experienced patent attorney or patent search firm. If you need to develop a prototype to receive a patent, you can seek assistance from a rapid prototyping company or engineering firm.

Prevent Leaks From Employees and Contractors

As Facebook’s suit over Oculus Rift illustrates, intellectual property theft often occurs as a result of a leak from an employee or contractor. Preventing such leaks is key to protecting your intellectual property.

You can discourage leaks by requiring your employees and contractors to file a nondisclosure agreement. Install security camera systems and online monitoring tools to help you enforce your nondisclosure agreement and discourage breaches. You can monitor your employees and contracts with ultra-wide cameras and connected apps.

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