Larry’s remarks are well taken in the present IP climate.
There are actually two different IP-related questions here. In the first, we risk having the patentability of our work being unintentionally poisoned by a poster here. We already know the idea involved, may have worked it out in detail and put a lot of effort into it, but an un-fleshed-out public sketch of the idea could prevent us getting a patent, or invalidate one later even if did get one. We lose, the poster gains nothing, and only our competitors benefit. IANAL, but I don’t think that Terms of Service protect us from this problem; publication is publication, and once published the idea is gone for international patents, although US patents give us a year’s grace.
Larry brings up the second question: what if the poster’s idea is new to us, and has enough merit that we would like to add it? We could put in Terms of Service that claim ownership of all posted ideas, and I suspect that most forum participants would consider them no more than the usual legal boilerplate cruft that grows kudzu all over everything these days. However, there’s a moral question here: if the idea is genuinely new to us, should the poster get some compensation for it? Even if he has waived ownership by virtue of signing in to the site? I have no problem with requiring IP assignment as a condition of employment; after all you are getting paid. But I’m not altogether comfortable with IP assignment as a condition of reading a site.
On the other hand, there is the big grey area between an idea that we already have in detail, and an idea that we have never seen before. Every company has horror stories about unreasonable, sometimes even psychotic, people who allege that the company has stolen their idea – and sue. In defense, many companies simply refuse to even look at ideas from outside the company. That too is not the kind of company outlook I am comfortable with – the world is too full of the fortresses of fear already.
It is difficult to find a line between the warm-fuzzy of an open source project (which would never get funded into reality) and the take-no-prisoners behavior of widespread legal practice and company policies. I think many company founders are worried about such issues – remember “Don’t be evil”? But Google is itself an example of how hard it is to retain moral focus through time and massive growth.
I invite discussion of this topic, and the wider topic of company moral behavior.