I am a young student in California and I have developed a theory, which I believe might affect the scientific world, though, through fear of it being taken or wrongly affected by others, I have kept it to myself.
I am a corporate attorney and have advised clients of protection of the intellectual property integral to their operations. In the intellectual property world, there are three types of federal registration you can pursue - patent, trademark, and copyright. Patents secure ideas, trademarks secure brands, and copyrights secure written product. If you are looking to protect your idea, you may think about filing for a patent. The first step is securing a provisional patent that sort of holds a spot for your idea while your actual patent application is pending or your idea goes into development. The patent process is complicated and lengthy, so I would recommend getting the advice of a patent attorney if that is something you want to explore. Not all ideas are able to be patented, and you may find that a patent is not an option for you. The other option is to maintain your idea as a trade secret. This essentially means that you are careful about who you share it with, and when you do share it with anyone, you have an Non-Disclosure Agreement in place that prohibits them from disclosing your idea to anyone else or misappropriating it for themselves. If you had a company built around the idea, you would establish an in-depth trade secret program designed to prevent disclosure of your idea outside of the company. (e.g. Coca Cola has a trade secret program built around the recipe for Coke.) As an individual, you would just need to be careful and, to be extra thorough, get people with whom you share your idea to sign NDAs. There is no federal registration process involved in maintaining a trade secret, just common sense and consistency with your protective practices.