Steal These Ideas

Posted by bob on July 23, 2021

In 1970, Abbie Hoffman, a famous American social activist, published a book titled, Steal This Book. Traditional publishers turned him down and many bookstores did not want to carry the book for fear that readers would indeed steal the book.

Many young engineers have somewhat confused ideas about intellectual property, so they might be concerned that it is not okay to steal somebody else’s ideas.

Generally speaking, there is only one legal protection for ideas. This is called Trade Secret. In other words, a company can declare any idea or information to be a company trade secret. This might include customer lists, pricing, business methods, or almost any idea to be their trade secret. In order to pursue a legal remedy for an alleged theft-of-trade-secret, the company would need to show that they had diligently protected that secret. But one defense against such a claim might easily be that many people in the same industry used the exact same idea. In other words, the “trade secret” was not a secret at all.

You should not find any trade secrets in any of my writings. I am extremely careful about protecting any truly secret and unique tricks of my former employers and coworkers. You should be careful and thoughtful about that too.

One especially easy way to show that a trade secret was not a secret is to show that it had been previously published by someone else (and not due to any action of the defendant).

So what about the other forms of intellectual property: patents and copyright? Lawyers will quickly remind you that ideas cannot be protected by patent. However systems and methods implementing an idea may be protected.

Likewise an idea cannot be copyrighted, but the exact expression (words, pictures, movies) putting forth that idea is allowed to be protected by copyright. This means that while there might be a copyright on a specific expression of an idea, the idea itself is available to anyone who encounters that idea. You just have to put it into your own words or images.

This is why I strongly and emphatically urge you to steal my ideas. It is one of the most important human activities we all do: take something we learn from somebody else and then make it better or more useful. Sometimes, the teacher takes back an improved idea and shares it again. You will find many instances of that in the pages of this blog. I learn a lot from my readers and try to share those improvements. One of my favorite examples is Do What You Wrote Instead of Writing What You Did

In An Engineer’s Guide to Solving Problems and in various essays within this blog, I share examples of similar books and ideas about the art and practice of solving problems. The ideas are often extremely similar, but each author has stamped them with their own examples and experience.

Having written this, I must add that you should not copy or steal entire works (as opposed to ideas). That would just be lazy and dishonest.

When you organize your (problem-solving) effort by asking questions like the following list, you are using my ideas, but they are also the ideas of many, many other people who have been here before us.

  • What do we know?
  • What don’t we know?
  • What are the rules?
  • How will we find out the stuff we don’t know?
  • How will we know when we are done solving?

At every step, you will need to be writing down what you will do or what you are doing. When you are done, make available a final report explaining your ultimate problem solution. That report might be very short or informal; but it needs to be published or saved where the people who need to know can find it.

So steal these ideas—please. The problems you solve can make the world a better place.