When people consider intellectual property (IP) they most often think patent or copyright, which can be very valuable to a business. But, in fact, one form that’s often overlooked is trade secrets.
What constitutes a protectable trade secret varies from state to state, but the gist of what trade-secret law protects is similar in almost every state. A trade secret is any sufficiently valuable, secret information that can be used in the operation of a business to afford an actual or potential economic advantage.
“Given this broad definition, it should come as no surprise that a wide variety of things have been found to constitute trade secrets, including product formulas, data compilations, customer or client lists developed through hard work, manufacturing techniques and some forms of business know-how,” says P. Andrew Fleming, a partner at Novack and Macey LLP. “The point is that many things could be protectable trade secrets if a business took the time to identify and properly protect them. All too often, however, businesses do not do a good job at either.”
Smart Business spoke with Fleming about how your company should be protecting your trade secrets.
How might a company’s trade secrets be vulnerable?
It is hard for a business to protect something unless it knows what it is — a business has to identify its trade secrets before it can protect them. A little common sense goes a long way. Business owners should start by asking a simple question: ‘What does my business do better than the competition that my competition does not know about, and that I do not want them to know about?’
What policies should a company put in place to protect its trade secrets?
The next step is protecting that trade secret. This can be tricky because, as the name implies, a trade secret loses protection when it is no longer secret. Moreover, the law does not protect a trade secret unless its owner takes reasonable steps to keep it secret. Although there is no hard and fast rule, a business should consider:
- Password-protecting computers containing its secrets.
- Limiting access to secrets on a ‘need-to-know’ basis.
- Keeping hard copies of documents containing or describing its secrets under ‘lock and key.’
- Entering into contracts with its employees that requires those employees to maintain secrecy during employment and after their employment ends.
A business also might consider using reasonable non-compete agreements with employees who know trade secrets to keep them from going to the competition. After all, if a former employee cannot work for a competitor, he or she has little incentive to reveal secrets once employment ends.
How has social media affected a company’s ability to protect its trade secrets?
The explosion of information on the Internet has made it more difficult for businesses to argue information or know-how is sufficiently secret to constitute a trade secret. It is now far easier to find descriptions of techniques, know-how and even customer lists — a point underscored in Sasqua Group, Inc. v. Courtney. There, the defendant allegedly took secret and valuable customer information to her new job, and the plaintiff argued the information was a trade secret. The court acknowledged that the customer information could in the early days, i.e. pre-Internet and pre-social media, have been sufficiently secret, but since virtually all of the allegedly protected information could be found on the Internet, including through social media sites, it no longer qualified.
It is not difficult to imagine other scenarios in which a business could lose trade secrets via the Internet or social media. For example, a disgruntled employee could intentionally post secrets so the otherwise secret information loses its protection. Even a happy employee unwittingly could disclose secrets through careless posting, such as establishing links to all customers on a social media page.
There are no easy answers to such problems, but businesses must remain on guard, take care when creating or posting to social media sites, and educate employees about the pitfalls of using social media.
P. Andrew Fleming is a partner at Novack and Macey LLP. Reach him at (312) 419-6900 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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