How to Protect Your Company's Intellectual Property

An actor portraying Colonel Sanders looks over a large bucket of KFC chicken pieces Brian Bohannon / KFC

Entrepreneurial success does not come easy and, often, a unique product or idea is what can push your company into the spotlight and set you apart from your competitors. This is your intellectual property (IP), and the onus of safeguarding it is on you. 

Indeed, the process of securing your intellectual property should be a priority task, especially if your business is reliant on the person, the idea or the technology behind your driving product. However, as illustrated in a 2015 study by the UK Intellectual Property Office, a lot of new entrepreneurs fail to adequately understand the importance of this, and end up losing out to more streetwise rivals. 

To make matters worse, the ever-increasing popularity of the internet means that it's now easier than ever for rivals or other businesses to infringe upon your intellectual property rights. Therefore, you need to take intellectual property protection seriously, and ensure that your assets remain guarded at all times.

Identifying Intellectual Property

Intellectual property rights are similar to other property rights and permit their owners to reap the benefits of their creation. They are not just reserved for large MNCs, either; IP protection is available to businesses of all shapes and sizes.

Both tangible properties and intangible elements come under the purview of IP regulations, and receive equal levels of legal protection. Some examples of what can be defined as intellectual property include:

  • Prototypes or working models
  • Inventions
  • Designs and blueprints
  • Symbols
  • Literary works
  • Logos
  • Original works of art
  • Recipes or formulas
  • Brand names

Remember: just because you produce a design or a prototype, it doesn't mean that it is automatically protected. It is your duty to ensure that any intellectual property is legally safeguarded via the requisite means, which we will explore further below.

It is also important to remember that customer lists, product names, and proposed marketing plans are all intellectual capital and need to be protected by a secure system. Before you initiate the process of protecting your intellectual property, check around to ensure that you are not infringing upon the intellectual rights of others, too. While it is natural to assume that your idea or creation is unique, there is always the possibility that someone else has thought of it before; just because it never reached market, it doesn't mean that a patent or copyright hasn't already been filed.

Common Ways of Safeguarding Intellectual Property

Once you have established that you have a unique idea or creation in hand, you must take immediate steps to safeguard what can now be classed as an asset; patents, trademarks, and copyrights are the most common types of protection for your business interests.

While patents are usually applicable to techniques, processes, and innovations, copyrights are more targeted at works of art, images, sculptures, and even computer programmes or websites. Trademarks, meanwhile, relate to symbols or words that distinguish your specific product from others in the market.

Trade secrets are a different story altogether. Defined – as the name suggests – as secrets that are directly linked to your company's product, they cannot be registered with any government agency and require alternative means of protection. For instance, you may be able to declare a trade secret to a patent lawyer in a signed and notarized disclosure. An example of a trade secret is the recipe for Coca-Cola, which enables the company to retain a competitive edge over its rivals.

Unfortunately, filing for patents, copyrights and trademarks is a complex and drawn-out process. Therefore, you might want to consider hiring an attorney with expertise in this particular field to guide you.

You must also take measures to ensure that the intellectual property in question belongs to your company and not your individual employees. This should be clearly outlined in your initial employment agreements and should define the scope of intellectual property ownership concerning any work that your employees are doing for you. If there is a lack of clarity on this issue, then it can leave you open to legal complications – including litigation – in the future. Ironclad non-disclosure agreements (NDA) are also a must when it comes to IP rights, not just for employees, but for licenses, sales contracts and any other interactions with partners and stakeholders that can result in access to confidential documents or processes.

Once you have completed the formalities related to the intellectual property rights of your company, don't make the mistake of letting down your guard. Maintain a close watch on avenues where your intellectual property might be at risk, such as the internet. Look out for any trademark or copyright infringements and take prompt action if you notice something along these lines. You should also sit down with your team regularly to evaluate updates and new creations that may require IP protection.

Think Outside of the Box

While, as mentioned, patents, copyrights, and trademarks are all traditional ways of asserting your IP rights, other effective protection methods exist. These include:

  • Constant Innovation - Frequently updating your products and reinventing your processes will keep you ahead of competitors and act as a deterrent to plagiarism.

  • Separation of Duties - Don't give any one employee access to the entire process; split production duties, so that each team or employee understands their own role only.

  • Discretion - When there is a risk of IP rights being compromised, remaining tight-lipped about your business ideas and innovations might seem like an obvious thing to do. However, many entrepreneurs can get caught up in the excitement of their new venture or technology, and end up giving away too much information about how it works.

  • Diligence - Be diligent about controlling access to valuable information. Make use of the latest technologies to limit access to sensitive information such as ideas, creations, or manuscripts. Install a two-factor authentication system, for example, to ensure that your secrets do not end up in the wrong hands.

The processes and procedures detailed in this article might seem like a lot of work, but it is well worth taking the time and effort in the short term to ensure the safety and future of your company going forward.

Unfortunately, corporate theft and sabotage is a genuine and discernible threat, and there will always be people who are looking to make a quick buck at the cost of someone else. By asserting your intellectual property rights, you can thwart such unscrupulous threats to ensure that no one else derives undue advantage from your efforts and originality.

How else can you ensure that your IP rights are protected? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comment section below!