Intellectual property is generally defined as anything that is produced by the human mind. There are four traditional types of intellectual property: 1) patents, such as you might have on a unique device or invention; 2) copyrights, such as you might have on a piece of music or a book; 3) trademarks, such as your company logo or particular branding on one of your products; and 4) trade secrets, such as a unique business method that gives you an advantage over your competitors.
Each of these things can be protected and can be extremely valuable for your business, but you need to have a plan for organizing and protecting your intellectual property.
The first step in protecting your company’s intellectual property is to conduct an IP audit. Ideally, this will be done with your attorney. The goal of the audit is to:
Once you have conducted your audit, you should then assess your internal company controls for your intellectual property. Unfortunately, employees can be a source of loss for your IP. It may be an inadvertent disclosure to a business partner, or it may be a former employee who intentionally takes your IP to your competitor. Either way, you need to have internal controls.
There are two main things to consider here: (1) control access to critical information. This is especially important for trade secrets. If an employee does not need to have access to these things, don’t allow that employee to have access. This may seem harsh, especially in smaller companies where there is a strong team environment, but controlling access is one of the best ways to protect things like trade secrets.
(2) Consider using employment agreements with non-compete and non-disclosure agreements, and, if appropriate, assignment to the company of intellectual property rights. There are a number of factors that go into this decision, and the specifics of those agreements are beyond the scope of this post, but, if properly drafted and implemented, they can provide your business a comfortable level of protection.
The final part of the intellectual property protection outline is to protect your IP from external disclosure. This means that you need to evaluate what information you will disclose to: customers, contractors, business partners, agents, and joint venturers. Each case will be different and require a different evaluation. If you decide to disclose things like trade secrets, you must have an appropriate agreement in place to protect your intellectual property. This will require working with your business lawyer, but it is an investment you should make.
This outline is only meant as a starting point. You should use it to begin a conversation with your attorney and develop a specific strategy for your business. If you have questions or comments, please feel free to contact Chris directly, and make sure to check him out on anchor.fm: