The theft of intellectual property (IP) from North American businesses is often in the news. This property can include commercial or artistic innovations; new methods having economic value; or unique names or logos used commercially. This property can be protected by patents for inventions; trademarks for branded items; copyrights for authored works; or trade secrets for which the owner takes reasonable measures to keep secret. A collection of federal and state laws defines these IP protection regimes.

Unfortunately, IP theft can be cheap and easy. A thief merely has to copy your idea or product. While your organization has done all the work, thieves can reap huge profits. As a result, IP theft can cost people their jobs, damage the reputation of your operation by counterfeited products sent to market, deprive governments of tax revenue and even result in the spread of organized crime.

If you haven’t already, you should consider proactive steps to help protect your organization’s intellectual property. These can include the following.

  • Know what intellectual property you own. Employees at all levels should communicate to understand what information needs to be protected, how to protect it and from whom to protect it. Corporate leadership must work together on this.
  • Know where your intellectual property is located. In addition to your IT systems, examine printers, copiers, scanners, cloud applications, employee personal devices and third-party systems for their likelihood of being illegally breached. Make sure to purge data at locations that are not regularly used for safe data storage. 
  • Prioritize your intellectual property. Complete a risk and cost-benefit analysis to map out your forge’s assets and determine what information, if lost, would hurt the most. Consider which of those assets is most at risk of being stolen. Combining these factors should help you determine where to focus your protective efforts.
  • Label valuable intellectual property. If information is confidential to your company, label it appropriately. You may need to demonstrate at some future time that your sensitive information was protected as such.
  • Secure your intellectual property both physically and digitally. Physical and digital protection is best. Use passwords and physical keys, and limit employee access to sensitive information.
  • Educate employees about intellectual property. Awareness training is effective for plugging and preventing IP leaks. Typically, humans are the weakest link in the defensive chain, which is why an IP protection effort that lacks a focus on employee awareness is less likely to succeed. Make sure employees are aware of how they might unintentionally expose IP.
  • Know your tools to protect intellectual property. A variety of software tools are available for tracking documents and other IP stores. Data-loss prevention tools are now a core component of many security suites.
  • Take a big-picture view. Some IP theft cases involve a series of incremental steps that may be noticed by some employees. Often, the steps are not “put together” to realize that several breaches were perpetrated by the same person. This is why connections and communication between several corporate functions must be brought to bear on the problem.
  • Apply a counter-intelligence mindset. How would you spy against your own forge? Thinking through such tactics will lead you to consider shredding the papers in the recycling bins, convening an internal council to approve publications or other ideas.
  • Search competing products for infringement. Conduct searches for infringement of any patents, trademarks and copyrights that you may own. These can range from informal searches conducted by employees to extensive ones conducted by outside firms.