Take steps to protect your idea

Take steps to protect your idea

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TAMPA (FOX 13) -

A great idea can be worth a lot of money, but if you're not careful, you could end up giving it away and getting nothing in return. That's what a Polk County girl thinks happened to her.

Victoria McDuffie likes to play with Furby dolls. She used her creativity to sketch several new designs using vibrant colors for the toy.

"I decided to make it like a peppermint because it would be colorful and more fun to play with," Victoria said.

So the smart 11-year-old girl decided to send her sketches to toy giant Hasbro to see what would happen. The company sent her a letter a short time later, which said, in part:

"…while we can't consider your idea for legal reasons, (we are enclosing the material you sent to us), we want you to know that we will continue to work (and play) toward our goal of making you and your family smile whenever you play with a Hasbro product."

"We were disappointed that they didn't take her idea," said Tammy McDuffie, Victoria's mother. "But we just filed it all away and said, 'You tried; great job.' Then six months later, they're in the store."

The family thinks Victoria's drawings inspired the new colorful line of Furby toys.

"There's no doubt in my mind," McDuffie said, looking at a picture of a new Furby in a toy store catalog. "There are so many similarities."

FOX 13 contacted Bill Larson, an intellectual property attorney in Pinellas County, and asked him how quickly a company could turn around a new idea and get it on store shelves.

"For large companies that have factories in China and have points of sale ready to go, they can do it as fast as two weeks," Larson said.

He remembers when Clearwater businessman Dan McLaughlin came to him in the 1990's with a new gold-plating system called Gold Effects.

"If it had not been for the patent, his machine would have been replicated by all kinds of companies and destroyed the market for him," Larson explained.

So what's the story when it comes to unsolicited ideas sent to Hasbro? We contacted to company and received this reply, which said, in part:

"...as a matter of corporate policy we are unable to accept them." The statement from the company goes on to say "...product development cycles happen at least a year and half to two years out from a product making it to shelves so this letter would have been received well after the new Furby line for 2013 had been conceptualized."

The statement concluded: "...the letter we received did not have any impact on the final product."

Larson says, legally, there's nothing more the McDuffies can do.

"What they need to know, and what everybody needs to know, is you need to use the laws to protect yourself. And if don't, then you have no excuse to complain later that somebody took your idea."

Larson says a trademark, patent, copyright, or licensing agreement -- one of these or some combination -- can protect people with an idea. Absent that, companies have no legal obligation to pay and Larson says it's not good business to even offer a token amount.

"It opens up the door and is recognition that you gave them something of value," Larson said. "So the argument is, OK, you recognized it has value, but you didn't give enough money."

Larson has now successfully secured more than a dozen patents for Dan McLaughlin. His latest invention is called Spectra Chrome, which is a spray-on chrome product that is actually a layer of silver between two coats of paint.

McLaughlin can spray just about anything and business is booming. He's now spraying monster trucks and motorcycles for Feld Entertainment with the security that he's covered and nobody will run over him.

But for Victoria McDuffie, it was a tough lesson.

"We just encourage her to be proud of what she created because it's bringing smiles to kids around the world," concluded Tammy McDuffie.

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