Theft isn’t a pleasant experience for any company, but for small businesses, intellectual property theft can be devastating. Your intangible property might even be more valuable than your physical assets, and it’s infuriating when someone rips off your ideas, strategies, business processes or content—or even hijacks your brand image completely. But how can you protect your most valuable intangibles in today’s competitive environment?
4 Ways to Protect Your IP
Use a confidentiality agreement. Any time you’re discussing any potential trade secrets or disclosing any type of valuable intellectual property, do so only under a written confidentiality agreement, advises David Toy, counsel with the Denver office of Hogan Lovells US LLP. These agreements should clearly outline ownership and usage rights to any intellectual property disclosed or provided for use.
Mark all property with appropriate notices. While marking written materials as confidential or proprietary won’t completely deter someone determined to steal it, it does help discourage theft. Toy recommends marking all intellectual property with appropriate notices and designations, such as trademark symbols and copyright notices.
Register copyrights when possible. Most content is actually protected to some degree under copyright laws, but registering intellectual property copyrights adds a layer of security and offers some legal recourse should your property be stolen. “Copyright protection is quick and relatively inexpensive, which makes it ideal for small businesses,” explains Art Peslak, a registered patent attorney with Gertner, Mandel & Peslak, LLC.
Be careful on social media. “Employees using social media may knowingly, or unknowingly, release proprietary business information and intellectual property on open source forums,” says Daniel W. Draz, principal of Fraud Solutions.
If employees are using social networking sites within your company’s network, a breach occurring through a social site could provide back-door access to proprietary databases and other sensitive company data. Or, your social media accounts could be hacked. There have been numerous major brands hacked on Facebook and Twitter, with some leading to potentially brand-damaging posts.
Burger King, for example, was hacked in early 2013. The company’s Twitter account was manipulated to look like McDonald’s, complete with phony posts that Burger King was sold to McDonald’s as well as some unflattering claims about the company’s employees. Burger King racked up thousands of new followers due to the controversy, but it also earned its fair share of criticism for not having better security measures in place.
Be mindful of what information you share on your social networks, and educate your employees on best practices. Always use strong passwords and be cautious about opening links and messages. Monitor your social accounts closely to detect potential hacks and take immediate action.
Can You Go Too Far In Protecting Your IP?
The above tips are good measures to protect your IP, but Abra Adduci, a freelance arts writer, offers another perspective on the subject. And that is that some small businesses might be too afraid that someone is going to rip them off. These businesses watermark all images and disable right-click functions on their websites, which theoretically prevents someone from copying and pasting the content, yet potentially annoys loyal fans. Adduci likens it to running a brick-and-mortar retail store and screaming, “Don’t shoplift!” every time a customer walks through the doors.
Instead, she suggests, “Arm yourself with knowledge and common sense, starting with basic understanding of copyright law. If necessary, take ‘good offense’ measures like registering material with the U.S. Copyright Office or the National Writer’s Guild; both serve as back-up in courts of law. Finally, keep a prudent, but positive mindset. Assume your audience are adoring fans … not property-grubbing thieves.”
Your intangible property is often the product of hours, weeks or years of hard work. Be smart about protecting your intellectual property, but don’t obsess over it. If you take reasonable precautions, the odds are less that you’ll fall victim—but if you do, the key is to take rapid action to rectify it.
Angela Stringfellow is a freelance writer, social media strategist and complete content marketing junkie obsessed with all things Web, written word and marketing