Property comes in in two forms: tangible and intangible. Most of us understand that tangible property is something real and physical, like a car or a computer. Intangible property describes something you can own and can transfer that ownership to another person or corporation, but has no physical substance. An example is a copyright.
Intellectual property (IP) refers to creations of the mind for which exclusive rights are recognized in law. Under IP law, owners are granted certain exclusive rights to intangible assets, such as literary works, discoveries, inventions, symbols, phrases, and designs. IP can include patents, copyrights, customer lists, trademarks, business processes, and acquired know-how. The secret recipe for Coca Cola is a good example.
Ensuring that your IP doesn’t walk out the door is just as important as making sure people don’t steal computers or desks. Where would Coke be without its secret formula or Microsoft without the source code to Windows?
The first concern is the people you hire. You should carefully examine any potential candidate who will access critical IP. You want to make sure you can trust your employees. Think about doing the following, as long as these are legal and enforceable:
- Background and criminal checks
- Drug tests
- Credit and reference checks
- Education transcript verification
- Execution of nondisclosure and confidentiality agreements
Protect electronic versions of your IP. Filing patents and copyrights is important, but unfortunately people, governments and corporations may steal and use your information no matter what legal protections are in place. Since most IP is written in documents, securing them with a persistent document security policy guarantees that only authorized people can access the information. If an authorized person steals your documents, you can immediately revoke access to them, rendering them useless.
Consider physical safeguards for your IP. Whether products are under development or are protected by patents, you need to exercise caution. Consider the following:
- Secure your premises from people leaving with property or from trespassers trying to gain access
- Install surveillance cameras inside and outside your perimeter
- Restrict access and the ability to download or transmit data from your computer network
Industrial espionage is alive and well as companies and governments try to get a competitive edge. In recent years companies as diverse as Intel and Ford were victims of IP theft and fraud. There is a lot of current news about Chinese companies heavily involved in these criminal activities. In many cases it’s easier and cheaper to steal someone else’s IP rather than spend the time and money to create a new product or service. Some cases are publicized, but many are not. Current data breach laws don’t focus on IP, only on personally identifiable information (PII), so companies are not compelled to disclose breaches.
The best way to safeguard and protect your IP is by being proactive. Look at your current hiring practices and policies, check your physical security and look at who has access to critical documents. You should also verify the same items with your key business partners. When you find gaps, close them. In today’s business world, you need to prepare for the inevitable and reduce your risk of legal and financial problems.
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