Integrity Matters
February 12, 2003

Idea dispute leaves one friend hurt

Question: (S-007) About 15 months ago, I was winding done from a set of tennis over drinks with one of my best friends. As we were talking, I suddenly had an idea for what I thought was a clever new product concept. When I told my friend the idea he smiled and said something like, “Yeah, that would be great”. The idea drifted out of my consciousness almost immediately, as I assumed it had for my friend.

Last week I was catching up on local gossip with my wife. She casually informed me that my friend’s wife told her that her husband has just sold his rights in a new product to a big company with nationwide distribution. As it turns out my “best friend” had developed my idea – designs, patents, copyrights, etc. – and then cashed in on it. When I confronted the friend he said that he didn’t really think I was that serious about my idea and that it wasn’t til months after I told him the concept that he thought it might be worth pursuing.

I was devastated. I probably don’t have any legal rights to my idea, but it’s not the money part of this that’s plaguing me. There has been an integrity break with my long time friend that is irreconcilable. Yet, our wives and kids are inseparable. How can I be true to myself, and at the same time minimize the impact of my issues on others?

Response: Your concerns are understandable. Your friendship has been tainted by what you feel has been a breach of trust, honesty and possibly some of your own naiveté. So, how do you minimize the impact of this disappointment, not only for you and your buddy, but also upon your families?

There are three relationship "checks" that could minimize damages to your friendships:

1. Assuming that you will not elect to call together the other friends who gathered with you after the tennis match many months ago and ask them to "reconstruct" the conversations regarding the source of the idea; and assuming that you have no desire to participate in any kind of legal action, then you are completely clear that the issue is really more about the friendship than the dollars. If you pursue any legal recourse, the consequences to the relationships may be serious. Make your decision and don't look back.

2. Find an opportunity to clarify with your friend the nature and depth of your concern. There is always the possibility that you miscommunicated the seriousness of your business idea and your desire to solicit feedback about its viability prior to your own implementation. Regardless of how this conversation turns out, you will have learned: ways to improve the clarity of your own communication; the receptivity of your friend to share ownership for the "foul-up" in your relationship, and, more effective ways to discuss proprietary information, even among friends.

3. Remember that "integrity is congruence between what you say and what you do, as well as what you say about what you did". If you avoid legal confrontation and find a shared ownership for the problem - then the relationship can emerge even stronger than before. You own some of the responsibility because you discussed a business idea without fully disclosing (or possibly even fully understanding at the time) that you intended to make it your own.

This may have been an expensive lesson. What was or is at risk are money, friendship and family relationships. Count the costs and learn from the experience.

JIM BRACHER is founder of the Bracher Center for Integrity in Leadership in Monterey. His column, "Integrity Matters," appears Wednesday on the Business page. Readers are invited to submit questions on business-related ethics and values. Please write in care of INTEGRITY to The center's Web site is

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