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If I have an idea that I present and to someone or a group at a school function, and they take the idea directly from our meeting and sell it, can I sue? Or do I literally have ZERO protection without a patent?

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    To prevent the "in common law you can sue for everything" answer, you should be asking if you can win a lawsuit. I do think it's an important and good question, but you should ask for a specific jurisdiction because it may vary between e.g. Germany and the US.
    – DonQuiKong
    Jan 30 '18 at 7:12
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    Normally you should not be entitled to any rights, if you distributed information unconditionally. I am not sure, however, what is the application of trade secrets, which also depends on the jurisdiction as @DonQuiKong mentioned. Jan 30 '18 at 9:20
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    @chempatent1981 You aren’t just handing out trade secrets at a school function. To keep something trade secret, you need to take tangible steps to protect it.
    – Eric S
    Jan 31 '18 at 0:23
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    @EricShain certainly not. I figured the school is only an example to illustrate his question. Small companies do prefer some time trade secrets rather than patents to protect their technology or way of doing business. It's just another option, to give him a complete picture. Jan 31 '18 at 9:15
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DonQuiKong's comment "you should be asking if you can win a lawsuit" is quite salient, as Intellectual Property litigation, and patent litigation in general, is extremely expensive. (This was a reason "patent trolls" were able to extort companies to the average tune of $2 million dollars--cheaper than going to court.)

One means of protection is to file a provisional patent application. Not everyone agrees on the wisdom of self-filing, but I know experienced patent attorneys who are adamant an attorney is not strictly required for a provisional, so long as the invention is fully and rigorously described.

The other route is to have the person or people sign a non-disclosure agreement. This allows you to disclose in a manner that does not constitute public disclosure which could render your invention ineligible, depending on the rules for the region(s) you may be planning to file in. (See also: At What Point Do Conversations Become Prior Art?)

If you are not planning to file a patent application yourself, then public disclosure may be a way to invalidate a subsequent filing of your invention by another party, but the problem is, the patent examiners may not become aware of the public disclosure, and the application could still receive a grant. In that case, you'd have to challenge in court, which, again, could be ruinously expensive.

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