A Cautionary Tale
Virtually everyone interviewed for this story warned that IP is highly perishable. Once the secret is out, it's out. And the consequences can be dire.
Prescott Winter, CTO of the public sector for HP Enterprise Security Products, was advising a small high-tech company that was hit by the Google Aurora attacks in 2010. This company spent a significant portion of its revenue on research and development.
"They only had about nine months of profit on their new products, about a 35 percent to 40 percent return on investment," says Winter. After that, the return rates dropped off. "The advantage they had dissipated immediately. They had overlapping nine- to 12-month bumps in revenue. If three of those high-revenue product cycles in a row were to be damaged or destroyed because a competitor gets the information, game over." Post-Aurora, the company was forced to shut down.
"They were unable to respond before their future was stolen," says Winter. "So many companies are hanging by a thread." In the words of the patent lawyer, don't let this be you.
The IP Landscape
Your company's intellectual property may encompass a wider range of items than you've considered, including:
Patents. This is usually fairly straightforward. If your firm was granted one or more patents, you or your legal department will be charged with defending it (that is, detecting and suing over possible infringement). Less clear-cut: When other companies or patent trolls claim your firm is infringing their patents. It happens every day. In industries like high tech, companies routinely infringe each other's patents via reverse-engineering, according to an industry insider, and then negotiate to decide a reasonable licensing fee post-facto.
Copyrighted material. When an author creates a written work, a natural copyright (that is, the right to exclude others from copying that work) arises. This natural copyright exists even without registering a formal copyright and using the © symbol, but if the document or work is important, you should take the time to register its copyright.
Trademarked names or logos. If your corporate name or logo carries a trademark, create usage policies for employees and business partners to follow or risk diluting the value of your IP.
Ideas. These are amorphous and generally exist in unstructured form (often in people's heads) and so can be difficult to protect. Most important here is to have a written agreement in place from the beginning of the person's employment or the start of the partnership so all parties understand who owns what in the case of a later claim.
Trade secrets (including recipes, ideas, transcripts, notes, presentations). This category covers any manifestation of value to the corporation for which you prefer not to seek formal IP protection, due to competitive or other reasons. The object here is to make sure the secret remains safe from prying eyes. You should seek the highest information security for this type of information, including encryption and multi-factor authentication. And don't skimp on the employee and partner education and security policies.
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