Customer Suggestions and the Law

Customers will often send kudos, complaints, reviews, as well as requests for features and suggestions for improvements to companies.  Many of these messages may simply be an expression of like or dislike, but sometimes customers will send suggestions on how to improve the product, or for future products.  Unfortunately, this can lead to problems if those ideas overlap with the company’s plans.

While ideas as such are not patentable, a creator has some rights to his or her ideas even if they are submitted freely as suggestions.  There is also the risk that the person contacting you has a patent or copyright.  There have been a number of cases where unsolicited manuscripts or emails were used as a basis for a claim of theft of ideas, or challenging ownership of a copyright in a game or movie.  In many of these cases, the companies won, having shown that they separately developed these ideas or that the ideas were quite distinct from the suggestion that was sent.  Unfortunately just having to respond to a complaint is expensive.

In order to protect yourself, and still let your customers feel like they can contact you, I recommend you set up automatic procedures that insulate customer suggestions from your design team.

  • Have a designated contact point, who receives and handles customer contacts, who is not involved in design, or creation.
  • Ask members of the creative teams to keep an inventor’s notebook or similar log of inventive activities, especially new ideas.
  • Keep a log of client contacts, and how they were processed.
  • Automatically respond to any contacts that include suggestions with a form response requesting that the customer return a signed assignment or disclaimer of rights.
  • Do not open attachments, or review suggestions until a signed assignment or disclaimer has been received.

This should make complaints more unlikely, and if any complaints are brought it will help you quickly prove that your processes make the suggested theft impossible.