A practical definition of intellectual property (IP) is “ownership of ideas and concepts.” When it comes to protecting IP, you are basically protecting the “big idea” that launched your company.
As a startup, it’s easy to downplay the importance of having a solid IP strategy because you’re literally just starting out. You don’t feel like you really have anything to protect yet. You figure you’ll wait until your product is actually launched and then take all the necessary steps to protect proprietary information. But this is a risk you really don’t want to take.
In addition to patents and trademarks and other legal protections, there are several ways to safeguard your proprietary information. Here is a 5-step IP strategy for startups that can help you protect your most important asset.
1. Define your intellectual property
How can you come up with a plan to protect your intellectual property if you’re not really sure what it is? Take the time to sit down with your team and really dive deep into what you think is proprietary information.
There are probably several ideas and concepts that went into your product or service. You have to define them before you can own them. It’s very important to get input from your entire team, as each person is probably contributing some type of intellectual property of their own.
Now is the time to get crystal clear on exactly what your IP is and write down every detail.
2. Create a corporate policy
Once you’ve defined your intellectual property, you need to develop a clear corporate policy with the sole purpose of protecting it at all costs. There are two ways you’ll need to do this.
First, you need to create an intellectual property contract that clearly explains your IP policy and make sure that every current employee understands and signs a copy. All new hires should sign an employment contract as well. When an employee leaves the company, the IP policy should be explained again as part of the exit interview process and access to any confidential information should be revoked.
Secondly, when working with third-party vendors and contractors, a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) should always be required. You should also have various levels of access to proprietary information. Outside contractors and freelancers should only have knowledge of and access to the bare minimum information they need in order to do their jobs.
3. Communicate your IP policy
This is where a lot of startups and especially large enterprises fail. There’s usually a one page non-disclosure included in an orientation kit that a new employee must sign along with several other documents. It’s rarely discussed in detail.
Upon developing your IP policy, first start by holding a training session for current employees and explaining its importance and giving examples of what would constitute violating the agreement. Have a question and answer period to ensure that everyone is on the same page.
Next, make sure that intellectual property protection is covered in all future orientation sessions. If you have an internal newsletter or corporate intranet where you share information, include blog posts and articles about the importance of protecting IP. Try to keep it a top of mind issue with all your employees on a regular basis.
4. Protect your IP from online hackers
Chances are that all of your intellectual property, from business plans to research to coding, is stored online. With today’s sophisticated hackers capturing and holding companies’ data for ransom, it is imperative that you have the highest level of online security in place.
In addition to the basics — a strong firewall, enhanced password protocols, etc., you should also consider data encryption, especially when it comes to any trade secrets or knowledge stored and transmitted online.
Not only do you need to focus on your own internal security processes, but you need to know the specific security protocols of any outside business or vendor you are working with. If their security standards aren’t solid, you might consider going with another provider.
5. Review & communicate your IP policy on a regular basis
Anytime you do a product update or add features, be sure to add that additional IP to your documentation. Whenever the policy is updated or new information/property is added, it’s imperative to update the staff accordingly.
Protecting the intellectual property of the company should be considered a daily responsibility and should be included as part of everyone’s job description. Have your employees make suggestions throughout the year of ways to define and protect proprietary information. Set up a task force and really keep your entire team engaged in the importance of safeguarding your trade secrets.