The theft of intellectual property (IP) is serious problem for businesses of all sizes, and one which has increased substantially over the past decade. Almost half of all US businesses have reported incidents of IP theft, which now cost companies more than $250 billion annually. 

With hackers increasingly sophisticated in the protocols they employ, IP theft is currently for far too many simply a cost of doing business.  That’s unfortunate, because businesses can substantially reduce their risk by implementing a comprehensive IP strategy to protect intellectual property and trade secrets from thieves and hackers, on the one hand, and competitors who understand patent law and use it to their advantage, on the other. 

Although no set of strategies is foolproof, there are some simple steps businesses can take to protect IP and trade secrets from hackers and competitors.  Here are 5 which should be part of a your IP protection strategy:

  1. Be prepared for phishing and maintain effective software:  much IP theft comes from personalized phishing emails which infect computers when employees unwittingly open them.  Companies can protect themselves by installing email filtering software and proactively educating employees never to open emails the senders of which they don’t recognize or of which they are suspicious.  Be sure your anti-virus software is properly installed and kept up to date.  Finally, implement workplace protocols which restrict employee access to all confidential information.
  2. Stay on top of changes in patent law: patent law is not a constant. For example, the America Invents Act (AIA), passed by Congress in 2011 in an effort to streamline the process for filing patents, in essence altered the legal definition of who owns an idea. Prior to AIA, ownership was attributed to whoever generated the idea, defined as “first to invent”. AIA changed that to the first individual who files the patent, or “first to file”. This means you could lose ownership of your own ideas simply because a competitor makes it to the patent office before you do. Protecting yourself requires that you fully understand and be in compliance with this and other changes in the law.
  3. Employ a strategy specific to your business: don’t make the mistake of implementing a “one-size-fits-all IP protection strategy. Consider the nature of the products and services you produce and create a strategy appropriate for them. For example, products and services created by biotechnology companies remain marketable for a number of years; these companies require patents which remain in effect over the longer life of their products.  On the other hand, companies with products which are subject to more rapid change (such as clothing and mobile devices) should consider other options, such as the implementation of confidentiality agreements.
  4. Work with an expert: most businesses don’t have the time to create the proactive strategies necessary to protect their intellectual property and trade secrets, or to stay current on changes in the law.  Your best bet is to work with an experienced patent attorney, well versed in the nature of your business, who can, among other things, stay on top of changes in patent law and ensure that patents are filed at the most appropriate time.
  5. Commit to the long haul: acquiring a patent can take up to  6 years. If you’re serious about protecting your intellectual property, you need to make a long-term commitment to the protection of your IP and trade secrets, and never to lose focus.

It’s a mistake to think of your IP as simply part of your business.  Your ideas are your business, the leverage you wield in the intellectual marketplace and what separates you from your competition. Think of it this way:  you invested substantial time and money on research and development to bring your products and services to market; be at least as prudent in protecting them with a sound IP protection strategy.