Protecting your intellectual property takes conscious effort

The term “intellectual property” applies to more than just a copyright. Here are some questions for companies to consider about their IP when security is a concern.

Q. What is considered intellectual property but is often overlooked when deciding what to protect?

A. When people think of intellectual property, they most often think ’patent’ or ‘copyright.’ There are other forms. One that’s often overlooked is trade secrets.

As noted in an influential restatement of the law, a ‘trade secret is any information that can be used in the operation of a business … that is sufficiently valuable and secret to afford an actual or potential economic advantage over others.’ They take a wide variety of forms, including product formulas, data compilations, customer lists, manufacturing techniques and other types of business know-how.

Q. How might a company’s trade secrets be vulnerable?

A. A business has to identify its trade secrets before it can protect them. Common sense goes a long way here. Business owners should start by asking, ‘What does my business do better than the competition, which the competition doesn’t know about?’ The answer might qualify as a trade secret.

Q. What policies or procedures should a company put in place to protect its trade secrets?

A. There are no hard and fast rules, but a business must take ‘reasonable steps’ to protect its secrets. This could include password-protecting computers, limiting access on a need-to-know basis, keeping documents under lock and key, and/or requiring employees to maintain secrecy during and after employment.

Q. How has social media affected a company’s ability to protect its trade secrets?

A. It has made it more difficult for businesses to argue that it has trade secrets — a point underscored in Sasqua Group Inc. v. Courtney, No. 10-528, 2010 WL 3613855 (E.D.N.Y. Aug. 2, 2010), where the court held that compiled customer data was not a trade secret because the information was also available on the Internet and social media sites.

There are no easy answers, but one thing seems clear: Businesses must take care when posting to social media sites and educate employees about using social media sites.

P. Andrew Fleming is a partner with Novack and Macey LLP. He represents individuals and small, midsize and large companies in complex commercial litigation.

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