Mistakes: Protecting Your Ideas


Dear Preston,

I am a long time reader of your blog and admire your work.  I hope you can help me. Recently, I was contacted by a competitor who told me that she received an RFP for a wedding that was formatted and written just like she expects a proposal from me would. I reviewed the specs and found that it was my exact proposal! I feel duped.  The groom is sharing my work with designers all over Chicago and selling it for the cheapest price. As a designer, I would never accept another person’s design.  It’s dubious and uncreative.  You often suggest that we not do a proposal without a deposit or meet with clients instead of putting ideas in writing, but that’s not always possible. Is there any way to copyright the creative ideas outlined in a design proposal?



Dear Hoodwinked:

This is just so upsetting to hear. I do not even know where to begin.

First, I want to let you know how sorry I am that this happened to you.  I can empathize with your frustration as I have committed to the mistake of putting my ideas into writing (and having those ideas executed by another vendor) on a number of times.

As far as I know, there is no way for us to copyright our proposal but I would suggest having a lawyer put together a “non-disclosure agreement” and having the client sign it before sharing your proposal ideas.  That said, it is still possible for others to “tweak” your proposal and call it their own.

I also understand that many clients want concrete written concepts  and will not consider hiring you until they have them.  This can feel like a catch-22 to planners.

 Here is what I have learned through my past mistakes:

  1. As you referenced in your letter, I try to present my proposal in person.  I verbally explain my concept and provide clients with a line item writing proposal.  This includes only a range of cost with no written detail.  You must always remember that you are selling your ideas.  When you present ideas in person, you have a chance to share your enthusiasm and excite the client while also helping to address any questions they might have.  If you can do this without giving them too much detail, this could be a good compromise.
  2. After meeting with the client, it is not difficult to assess how serious the client is about acquiring your services.  Ask them for a retainer–and only then–present them with a complete written proposal with your ideas.

I might lose a few clients with this practice but at least I am comfortable in not giving away one of my biggest assets: My Ideas.

I want to close by applauding your integrity as a creative person, professional and artist. I wish all vendors shared your view and displayed your integrity, which is clearly intact.  I think we should all commit to turning down clients who come in with the proposals of other vendors.  They are asking us to steal ideas.  That’s not creative at all.




Regardless of your business, do you normally give written proposals with your creative Ideas before been hired?