Your company’s intellectual property (IP) is a valuable asset in need of strong protection. In this two-part series, we’ll explain how to protect your company’s IP with employee policies (Part 1) and legal agreements (Part 2).
All Companies Have Intellectual Property
When most people think of IP, they think of copyrights, patents, trademarks, and inventions. But, customer lists, marketing strategies, pricing, financial statements, and supplier & vendor lists are also IP. Essentially, every company – large or small – has valuable IP at stake.
Policies to Include in Your Employee Handbook
Employee Handbooks are an important training tool. However, they aren’t just a document to hand employees on their first day, never to be looked at again. Your Handbook should be a resource for both management and employees alike.
While there are numerous reasons to have an Employee Handbook, they can also be your first line of defense against IP theft. That’s because if you ever end up in a lawsuit over IP misuse, you’ll need to prove that you informed your employees of what you consider to be IP and how it should have been handled.
Here are a few IP protection policies every employer should consider, at a minimum:
- Physical Document Policies. Ensure employees know that documents should not leave the workplace without explicit permission (and that such documents are always company property). Also incorporate document purging policies, requiring specific employees to archive documents within a certain timeframe, and remove loose documents from printers, copiers, scanners, and fax machines.
- Technology & Internet Policies. Share your data encryption policies with employees and restrict access to sensitive information. Notify employees that company software, intra-net, programs, applications, email, and other technology are property of the company. Also ensure employees are not sending or receiving company information on personal devices or via personal email.
- Third Party Policies. Some businesses will have to share IP with third parties like suppliers or partners, out of necessity. If this is the case for your company, ensure they are aware of your IP protection policies. Make sure they know they need to protect your IP with the proper controls to prevent unauthorized access, misuse, or theft. You’ll also want third parties to sign a contract protecting your IP, a topic we’ll cover in Part Two of this series.
Implementing IP Protection Policies
Putting your policies in writing is only the first step. Proper implementation, training, and enforcement is everything. IP breaches are often the result of employee misunderstandings, so it’s important to educate your employees about the significance of IP, the risks posed by IP breaches, and how to safely use company technology.
In particular, you need to inform employees of the risks associated with using personal cell phones, home computers, or personal email to perform company business. More likely than not, they don’t have the same IT security on their personal devices that you employ at the workplace. Fortunately, IT experts can help you set up monitoring systems to track where your IP is being sent (like if employees are forwarding company documents to personal email).
Just as you should secure your IP physically – restricting access to rooms where IP is housed, you need to restrict digital access to IP. Use passwords to access sensitive documents and utilize data encryption. Have an IT professional ensure any applications, cloud services, or file-sharing services offer the highest levels of security.
Finally, use contracts as a form of legal protection, so that you can pursue legal action in the event of IP misuse. We’ll cover the types of contracts you’ll want to use in Part Two of this series.
If you would like to ensure your IP is adequately protected with clear employee policies, seek the advice of an IP professional who can help you draft policies that make sense for your company.
Disclaimer: Nothing in this article shall be construed as legal advice, or as creating an attorney/client relationship.
The Michelson Institute for Intellectual Property, an initiative of the Michelson 20MM Foundation, addresses critical gaps in intellectual property education to empower the next generation of inventors. Michelson 20MM was founded thanks to the generous support of renowned spinal surgeon Dr. Gary K. Michelson and Alya Michelson. To learn more, visit 20mm.org.