Through out history, there have been numerous ways to protect your inventions and innovations. Some of the tactics that still exist today have existed for hundreds of years, others are relatively recent inventions. We are going to go through a very brief history of protection of ideas, and then the common vehicles used today.
In the past, people have used a wide variety of different methods to protect their ideas. Often, they were violent. Murder, or physical means were not uncommon. Some things were never recorded, others were scarcely recorded and what documents that did exist were harshly protected. Although all of these methods had varying levels of success, the best way to maintain the competitive advantage has always been secrecy.
However, there has been many changes recently. In the past several centuries, the concept that original ideas can be legally protected and owned has become widely adopted. That leads us to your options as a creator today:
Legal Protection: If you want, you can actually file for a form of legal ownership of your idea. This is what we know as a patent. Now of course there are some basic conditions. It does have to be your idea. It must be entirely original, having never been claimed in a patent before. It also must be non-obvious, a condition that is harder to meet than you would think.
There are cons to this approach as well, such as the time, money, and pain it costs to go through such a complicated process. However, if you are granted a patent you have rights that you could never gain anywhere else.
Trade Secret: Or simply referred to as secrecy before, is an age-old tactic used to keep the advantage. It avoids many of the complications of the aforementioned options, but it introduces some uncertainty as well. If someone else comes up with your idea, then there is no legal protections you are entitled to.
As a creator, it is important to decide which method is best for you. Both have their advantages, so weigh them carefully.