A few years back my wife and I spent a great deal of time and effort writing a business plan. We researched the market place, analyzed the threat from local competitors and built the financial and resourcing plans that would ensure our success. When we were done, we shared the plan with our potential investors (friends and family).
Happily, when we shared our plan it received an enthusiastic response. Unhappily, it was so well received that one of our friends thought to share our business plan with some of his work colleagues.
Our fledgling business – completely wrapped up into one piece of intellectual property – had just been compromised! Our business plan was the key of trust between us and our investors and it was now outside our control. If our business plan fell into the hands of someone who wanted to take advantage of our hard work, they could have potentially executed our plan before us, putting at risk our success and our investors’ money.
This was a hard lesson that taught me:
- IP loss can be fast and devastating
- Simple human error or ignorance can expose valuable information
- The less diversity in your revenue sources, the greater the threat
In other words, small and medium sized businesses need to protect their intellectual property as much or more than large organizations. Without the financial resources of large organizations to both keep a close eye on the market to locate theft and to sue those who do attempt to profit from your intellectual property, the best course of action is to protect your IP as best you can.
In some cases, this means applying for Trademark or Patent protection. However, this can be a long and expensive process. Moreover, it will expose your “secret sauce” to the unscrupulous who may not respect these legal protections. As a result, many companies choose not to register some intellectual property at all.
Either way, it ultimately comes down to creating a mindset or culture within your organization that intellectual property is extremely valuable and needs to be handled appropriately. In my case, I did not clearly make it known to my friend that shopping my business plan around to his acquaintances was not in our best interest (his as an investor, mine as the business owner). While the intent was to help me find more capital, the results could have been disastrous.
Thankfully, there are tools to help your staff protect and keep IP in mind. TITUS classification solutions for Microsoft Office, Desktop, SharePoint and Email can be set to prompt users every time they create a document—or send an email—to classify it with the appropriate sensitivity. Then, based on the classification, TITUS (along with your other security systems) will be empowered to take appropriate security measures. Permanently affixed to the file, classification can be used to increase security related to protecting intellectual property, for example by:
- Automatically encrypting files for certain classifications
- Restricting access to specific users or groups based on classification
- Combining with DLP to prevent the file from being printed, copied, burned to DVD, uploaded to cloud services, etc.
- Checking outgoing email recipients, when there are IP related attachments, to prevent data leaks.
TITUS can even apply visual markings to emails and documents so that if they are printed, the appropriate classification labels and/or the name of the person responsible for the copy can be seen in the page headers, footers and watermarks. This raises awareness for the handling of information that contains intellectual property.
For small businesses in particular, protecting IP is becoming a very serious problem. While employee errors are still the greatest source of IP breaches, external attacks are turning their attention to IP in greater numbers. Symantec has reported that of all the targeted attacks against companies in 2012, 31% were against small and medium sized businesses. This is up from only 18% the year before.
More troubling is that many of the attacks on smaller businesses are designed to collect intelligence and IP on the targets’ larger customers and partners. Because security is often not as rigid with small to medium sized organizations, the IP shared by these larger companies with their smaller partners is usually easier to steal.
Your reputation and livelihood are at stake when IP is lost by accident or malicious intent. I will confess there were some strong emotions when my friend was careless with my business plan. In the grand scheme of things, however, this was small potatoes and ultimately there were no lasting negative consequences to our business or friendship. But, can you afford to take that same risk with your IP and business relationships?