Identify your intellectual property or risk losing it

Intellectual property (IP) protection is a critical task that enables companies to safeguard the hard work, expertise and ingenuity of their employees, says Kristen M. Hoover, a patent attorney at McCarthy, Lebit, Crystal & Liffman.

But, to be effective, a plan must be crafted to fit the way an organization functions.

“Each business must create a strategic plan that protects its unique intellectual assets everywhere they’re used,” Hoover says. “To do this, companies need to understand what IP they have and how those assets are deployed both inside and outside their walls.”

Smart Business spoke with Hoover on how to formulate a plan to ensure a company’s valuable IP resources are protected.

What constitutes IP and what assets might companies overlook when designing a protection program?
Many companies think IP protection is exclusive to patents. For some businesses, particularly those involved in innovation, manufacturing or R&D, patents will be a key component to their IP protection strategy. However, patents are not the only form of IP protection. IP can also be protected with trademarks, copyrights, trade secrets and contracts.

Trademarks often don’t receive the level of attention they should. Many companies put off seeking protection or do not think about it until a problem arises. Logos, slogans and business names are all items that should be protected. Trademarks are source identifiers and a key component to a company’s brand identity. They allow companies to be instantly recognizable to consumers and build their reputation in the marketplace.

Copyright protection is often overlooked, too, because copyrights are associated with artistic works. However, there are many business assets such as websites, internal manuals and handbooks that are copyrightable.

Additionally, companies that provide consulting work may have prepared materials or give presentations that should be protected. A trade secret is any confidential business information that gives a business a competitive advantage.

This could be any number of things, such as marketing strategies, data compilations, manufacturing processes, purchasing information, personnel information or customer lists. It’s a term that can be applied broadly and cover a multitude of assets, and often companies are not aware of all the assets that could be protected as trade secrets.

Trade secret protection, however, is dependent on companies handling this information appropriately. An IP protection plan should include proper procedures for handling this confidential information.

How can confidential information be protected?
To maintain confidential information, and therefore trade secret protection, companies must have internal policies that restrict access to confidential information, dictate how employees with access handle this information, and require the use of nondisclosure and confidentiality agreements. All employees should be made aware of these company policies and be required to follow them.

Contracts such as nondisclosure and confidentiality agreements are useful tools to maintain confidential information and protect trade secrets. For instance, nondisclosure agreements provide protection when discussing a potential business venture with another company or potential business partner.

While it may be necessary to share protected information in order to explore potential business ventures, it’s critical to take steps to ensure that information is not shared or used beyond the meeting. The nondisclosure agreement allows parties to share information while keeping it safeguarded and providing a means to seek restitution if it is not.

How can companies effectively assess and shore up their IP vulnerabilities?
Companies should talk with a patent attorney who has experience developing effective strategies to protect these valuable business assets.

This should include a review of all aspects of the company’s day-to-day business in order to gain a clear understanding of what IP the company has that should be protected. By working with an experienced professional who can provide guidance at each step, the process of establishing an effective IP protection plan becomes more affordable and manageable.

Insights Legal Affairs is brought to you by McCarthy, Lebit, Crystal & Liffman