Idea theft occurs not only in the movie industry of Hollywood, but also in the high tech industry of Silicon Valley, in the toy industry, in the fast food industry, in the restaurant industry, in the consumer products industry, and in every human endeavor where ideas have value. We’ll give some sample idea theft verdicts below, but let’s first discuss the law.

In the landmark case of Desny v. Wilder, the California Supreme Court stated:

Generally speaking, ideas are as free as the air and as speech and the senses, and as potent or weak, interesting or drab, as the experiences, philosophies, vocabularies, and other variables of speaker and listener may combine to produce, to portray, or to comprehend. 

This generally means that the laws on the books, such as copyright law and patent law, protection do not protect ideas. So what does copyright law and patent law protect? Copyright law protects the artistic expression of ideas, not ideas themselves. Patent law protects useful and functional machines, processes, or compositions of matter.

Let’s put this into context. Say that you have a great idea for a movie. The idea is that alien humanoid from the planet Krypton arrives on Earth. On earth, the alien has superpowers, such as x-ray vision and the power to fly. The alien becomes a superhero whose only weakness is a metal from Krypton known as Kryptonite. This idea of course is the idea of a super human.

Copyright law would not protect your idea, because copyright law does not protect ideas. If you expressed your idea first in the form of a comic book, then in the form of a screenplay, and finally in the form of a movie, all three expressions would be protected by copyright law, because that’s what copyright law protects, the expression of ideas in a tangible medium. But you did not express your idea in a tangible medium such as images in a comic book or ink on paper or images on a movie real. All you did is come up with the idea. So copyright will not protect you or your idea. Patent law would not protect your idea, because patent law protects an idea only to the extent it is a  useful and functional machines, processes, or compositions of matter. So unless your Superman idea includes a new drug (composition of matter) that will give humans x-ray vision, patent law will not protect it.

So without copyright or patent law, how can you protect your idea? The answer is with a CONTRACT. Let’s look further at the California Supreme Court case of Desny v. Wilder, where the court responded to the argument that ideas can have absolutely no protection under the law:

The lawyer or doctor who applies specialized knowledge to a state of facts and gives advice for a fee is selling and conveying an idea. In doing that he is rendering a service. The lawyer and doctor have no property rights in their ideas, as such, but they do not ordinarily convey them without solicitation by client or patient. Usually the parties will expressly contract for the performance of and payment for such services, but, in the absence of an express contract, when the service is requested and rendered the law does not hesitate to infer or imply a promise to compensate for it.  In other words the recovery may be based on contract either express or implied.

In simple terms, if you disclose your idea to some person in exchange for an agreement that you will be paid if that person uses your idea, the courts will protect your idea based upon contract. The contract can be written or verbal. The contract can be express or implied. An express contracts is formed when language (written or verbal) indicates an agreement. An implied contract is formed when the behavior of each party leads the other party to reasonably believe that a contract has been formed.

Here are some examples of successful idea theft claims.

  • $1.7 million jury verdict award for the theft of an idea for a component of action figure toys
  • $30 million jury verdict for theft of the Taco Bell talking chihuahua idea (“Yo quiero Teco Bell”)
  • $240 million jury verdict for theft of idea for sports complex at Disney World
  • $8.2 million jury verdict for theft of an idea for a golf-themed restaurant
  • $19 million jury verdict for theft of an idea for a movie
  • $9.5 million dollar verdict for theft of an idea for a radio station (“Radio Disney”)

In sum, if you believe someone has stolen a valuable idea from you, you may be entitled to substantial damages.


1. Are idea theft claims viable only in the entertainment industry?

No. Idea theft is certainly common in the entertainment industry, and successful lawsuits are brought in the entertainment industry. But idea theft, and successful lawsuits, occur in every industry, including in the restaurant, toy, fast food, and amusement park industries, and nearly every other industry.

You have to be able to prove that you disclosed your idea to some person or to some business entity in exchange for an agreement (written or verbal, express or implied) to you would be paid for your idea.

No. You can’t even get a patent or copyright on an idea. A successful idea theft claim is based on contract law, on an agreement.

4. Is idea theft law state law or federal law?

Idea theft law is state law. California is generally friendlier to idea theft claims than New York. California and New York are the jurisdictions where most idea theft claims are brought, but you can bring an idea theft claim in any state.