Protecting Intellectual Property: Do You Know Where The Threats Are?

Infographic property of Nikon (http://www.nikon.com/about/info/ip/index.htm)

Infographic property of Nikon (http://www.nikon.com/about/info/ip/index.htm)

There’s no question that for many companies—especially those in tech businesses—intellectual property can be the bulk of an organization’s assets. In fact, the value of intellectual property is often underestimated—and underprotected. This can be a fatal error.

Yet it’s an easy one to make. Protecting intellectual property can be a complex challenge, and a constantly moving target, because market and technology changes are continually adjusting the importance and value of ideas. As markets become more global, there are also the highly-visible issues of cyber and trademark squatting, which can be costly and disruptive.

But the real risk to your intellectual property can come from less-apparent threats. And the consequences can be significant. Protecting your IP requires vigilance and a multi-faceted approach. Here are some issues to consider:

Make Sure Employees Know What Your IP Is. And Its Value.

Intellectual property takes many shapes—patents and copyrights, certainly, but also less apparent information like production processes, communication systems, customer relationships. IP can be anything unique to your organization.

Some of these can’t be protected legally, but they need to be guarded within the company. To do this, employees need to understand what needs to be protected. Management should inventory IP regularly, and communicate to staff members how to respond when anyone outside the organization inquires about proprietary information.

The risk of accidentally giving away a valuable corporate information asset is typically higher than the information being stolen. This is because employees may not know that they need to protect the asset. Internal communications can prevent this.

Be Proactive In Your Defense. From The Beginning.

Courts (and markets) tend to reward organizations that take a proactive approach to protecting intellectual property. Defending IP sets precedents that can be used in formal defenses. And by being aggressive protecting information assets, companies often discourage competitors from challenging them, whether they are legally defensible or not.

Protecting an IP asset can even help in brand building. A classic is example is Dow’s Styrofoam brand of insulation. The term “Styrofoam” became a generic description of any foamed plastic—insulation, coffee cups, packaging. But true Styrofoam was only used for extruded insulation products, navigation buoys, and crafts. Dow had printed literature describing Styrofoam uses that would be sent to any individual or company that misused the brand. This not only protected the brand, but often led to a better understanding of Dow’s products.

Some Threats Are Closer Than You Think

Think about how often you communicate about your company’s IP. Certainly, proprietary products and processes are part of marketing, but there are typically scores of other communications that involve privilege company information.

Many of these occur without people realizing their importance. A phone call from a prospective customer that asks about a company advantage may seem innocent enough, and it’s very easy to share extra information in hopes of a sale. But what if the caller wasn’t a prospect, but a competitor? Carefully protected ideas can be handed off casually without anyone even noticing, until it’s too late. The same can be true when former employees meet current employees for lunch or to catch up. It’s easy to talk shop, but the former staffer may be working or consulting with someone else. Current employees need to know what they can—and can’t—say in these situations.

Secrets Can Be Better Than Patents

That’s why sometimes it’s more desirable to keep information private, even if it means concealing some elements from your own people. If you’ve been watching Manhattan, the TV series about the building of the atomic bomb, compartmentalization was a critical concept—sections of the project didn’t share information for fear that it would be stolen by the enemy. And while WWII/Cold War secrecy isn’t terribly practical in a world where open collaboration and partnership are become more the norm, there can be reasons for keeping a few important cards close to the vest.

It’s Getting Easier To Fight The Squatters

Cybersquatting, trademark infringement, and copyright infringement are still major issues, especially internationally, but as markets become more global, there are growing numbers of legal remedies. Even in countries like China, where cybersquatting is essentially its own industry, courts are beginning to lean more toward protecting the rights of the original intellectual property owners. It’s still expensive and time consuming to get legal remedies, but the trend is discouraging to squatters.

But the responsibility is still on the owner of the IP to anticipate threats, take action to ward off squatters and espionage, and build value in the organization’s brand, products, and ideas. In fact, IP can often be the fastest way for a company to build value. So strategies for protection IP need to move at the same speed.

What do you want to build today?