Right Hair, Right Now

On The Q.T.

Sokera's formula contains natural, readily available ingredients. It's not processed in a particularly innovative way, and Sokera was told it probably would have to be altered to be patented. Unwilling to change the formula, she protected her idea by keeping it a trade secret--the same tactic KFC has used over the years to protect its "finger-lickin' good" chicken recipe.

A trade secret can be any formula, pattern, device, idea or process. In order to be considered a trade secret, it must: 1) give its owner a competitive advantage in the marketplace, and 2) be the subject of reasonable efforts for protection from outsiders. "Reasonable" is a vague term, but generally, you will keep an idea a trade secret if you get employees to sign nondisclosure agreements regarding the secret, and if you share no secret information with outsiders unless they sign nondisclosure agreements.

While trade secret status is not as powerful as a patent, trademark or copyright, it still offers some protection for your idea.

One advantage to trade secrets: Unlike a patent, they have no time limit. A utility patent expires after 20 years, while a trade secret can last forever. So keep those great ideas hush-hush!

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This article was originally published in the March 2000 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Right Hair, Right Now.

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