You may never have even thought about it before, but the likelihood is you have a significant amount of intellectual property. In addition to any inventions that form the basis of your products or services, you own web content, designs, and collections of data. All these are at least (if not more) valuable than physical intellectual property.
It’s crucial to protect your intellectual property to prevent irreparable damage to your business. Theft of IP leads to effects ranging from lost revenue and competitive advantage to damaged relationships with customers. However, intellectual property is rarely safe unless you actively take steps to protect it. Depending on your industry, threats to intellectual property could come from hackers, unethical competitors (including in conjunction with employees looking to work for the competitor), and even foreign governments.
1. Know the Types of Intellectual Property You Have
To be clear about what intellectual property your business owns, it’s necessary to understand the different types of IP that exist. The law defines four categories.
Any distinctive words, phrases, symbols, and sounds that relate to your products or services can be trademarks. For something to be considered a trademark, it must indicate that products are connected to your brand or help your offerings stand out from similar products from another brand. Businesses often use trademarks to develop a brand image, such as to distinguish quality. You can register for trademark protection for 10 years and then renew protections as often as you like.
You can receive a patent for a tangible item for 20 years. This protects the functional idea within a product. When you have a patent, no one else has the right to manufacture or market the product. However, others can apply to license your product.
Copyright protects the expression of an idea in a tangible medium, although it does not protect the idea itself. You can use copyright to protect writing, music, videos, and visuals. This encompasses computer code, databases, web copy, logos, training manuals, typographical arrangements, and other similar creative expressions. As the owner of copyrighted work, only you may reproduce the material, make derivatives, sell it, perform it, or display it.
There’s no need to register to receive copyright protections. However, you will need to register if you want to sue for infringement. Protections only expire 50 years after your death.
Anything that puts you at a competitive advantage is a trade secret. This includes formulas, devices, data, and patterns. To justify that something is a trade secret, it must provide your business with some kind of value and you must prove that you’ve taken steps to protect the secret, such as by sharing the knowledge with only a select group of people. Unlike other types of intellectual property, trade secrets are covered by state law rather than federal law.
Now you understand what kind of intellectual property exists, you can assess what you have. Since this will always be growing, it’s necessary to reassess on a regular basis. For instance, it may be worthwhile holding quarterly meetings with your partners or the top executives at your company.
2. Limit Access
The majority of breaches occur due to compromised credentials. Invest in a security system that uses at least two-factor authentication — it’s even better to use adaptive authentication. Password protection alone is never sufficient.
In addition, pay just as much attention to physical security. Keep rooms containing information related to your intellectual property locked and only provide access on an as-needed basis.
3. Locate Your Intellectual Property
It’s important to take note of any times when intellectual property leaves the place where it’s stored securely. For instance, if you use a printer, scanner, or copier, the device is likely to store a copy of the document. It’s necessary to delete these documents from the memory, particularly if the device is connected to a remote management system.
4. Provide Employee Training
Never assume employees already know how to take precautions with intellectual property. In fact, employee training is one of the most essential things you can do — as the vast majority of the time, a leak is due to human action, whether a mistake or an intentional decision.
Make sure you discuss the importance of protecting data for the sake of your company, but also address potential causes of an accident. The most common accidents are due to sharing information — either by email, a collaboration tool, instant messaging, or file sharing. For instance, an employee may send a message to the wrong person, the recipient could forward the message, or a tool may not use encryption.
These considerations are particularly important if employees are using cloud applications when accessing intellectual property. In your training, specify which cloud services employees are authorized to use for various purposes — to allow for productive file sharing while minimizing the risk of a breach.
Finally, you need to set standards for what devices employees can use when accessing intellectual property. Consider if you should require employees to use only work laptops and cell phones. You may also need to stress the importance of not taking USB sticks out of the office or saving files to a personal email to continue working on a project that contains intellectual property from home.
5. Use Separation of Duties
If no one on your team has the full picture, it will be much more difficult for a competitor to gain access to something like a trade secret. This is easiest to implement if you are a midsize or large company with teams based in different locations. It means that multiple people would need to make a chain of mistakes or rogue employees from different teams would need to work together, which significantly lowers any risk.
6. Only Register When Necessary
In some cases, it is worthwhile registering your intellectual property. For example, registering a trademark is inexpensive and prevents other businesses from operating under a similar name or from using the same names for their products or services.
In contrast, registering a patent may not be worthwhile. Not only is it costly, filing involves providing instructions of how to reproduce your product or service. This means competitors will know how you are achieving your results and can use the instructions as a starting point to create their own offering — by changing just enough to prevent violating the patent. For this reason, patenting should be only for non-trade secrets.
7. Monitor Your Competitors’ Actions
If you are to take action immediately after a competitor uses your intellectual property, you need to be monitoring what your competitors are doing. There are plenty of intellectual property management tools for this exact purpose.
8. Prioritize Your Most Valuable Assets
As your company grows, it becomes more of a challenge to protect all your intellectual property to the same extent. To ensure your efforts are cost effective, it’s necessary to determine which deserve priority attention. As well as considering the value to your business of the assets, determine which are at the most risk.
9. Create an Intellectual Property Policy
Make sure everyone is on the same page about your intellectual property by putting a policy in place. This should include a few elements.
Create a policy that sets out the procedure for protecting intellectual property as well as the disciplinary (and perhaps legal) actions you will take in the case an employee breaches a confidentiality or non-competition agreement.
If you do suffer a breach and decide to take the case to court, you will need to show that the person who shared confidential information did so knowingly. The best way to prove this is to have labels on all your proprietary information, including on login screens for employees.
Write a legally-binding non-disclosure agreement that anyone who receives access to intellectual property must sign. Employment contracts, licenses, and sales contracts should also include wording about intellectual property, if relevant.
There are several ways you may work with a third party. Of particular importance are collaborations, as it needs to be clear who owns the resulting intellectual property. For instance, you may contract a third party for brand development or design work. At the end, all the work needs to belong to your business. It is essential you have a written contract in this case, otherwise the third party will own the copyright.
Avoid working for contractors who ask for joint ownership. It may seem simple to start out, but the likelihood is you will experience issues in the future that are difficult to resolve and make it more difficult to protect your intellectual property.
To protect your intellectual property, it is essential you only work with outside contractors you can trust. At MYVA360, we take data security seriously. We have systems in place to ensure your confidential information is never compromised. We don’t make you choose between receiving the business support you require and keeping your trade secrets and other intellectual property safe.
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