If you own or work for an innovative business, you and your colleagues may find that your company benefits from investing in novel ways of doing business. As your company seeks to reach more customers, become more efficient, engage in creative problem solving and otherwise aims to better itself, your investment in novel ways of doing business may begin to “pay off” in any number of ways. However, in our increasingly interconnected business world, few unique ways of conducting business remain novel for long. Workers may either intentionally or unintentionally share your innovative trade secrets with others and end up tipping off your competitors in the process. Contractors and vendors may breach the terms of their contracts in ways that compromise the competitive “edge” your company has worked hard to gain within your industry. Executives or managers may leave their positions at your company and take both their expertise and their exposure to your business model elsewhere. These are just some of the numerous reasons why it is important to work with an experienced attorney in order to secure your company’s intellectual property rights and to enforce them whenever doing so is necessary.
An experienced intellectual property attorney will be able to evaluate all of your company’s intellectual property interests and will work to protect them accordingly. There are a host of intellectual property safeguards available that are designed to help companies conduct business efficiently and effectively while remaining protected from would-be intellectual property infringers. An attorney experienced in this highly-specialized field of law will be able to help your company sort out which safeguards are right for you. Chances are that some of the legal tools your attorney will utilize in order to help protect your company’s intellectual property interests will concern how you manage your business’s trade secrets.
Inventions vs. Trade Secrets
There are four primary kinds of legally enforceable intellectual property rights that apply to American businesses. Copyrights safeguard rights associated with original works of art and authorship. Many tech companies also use copyright protections to safeguard certain proprietary software and products that feature original artistic works. Trademarks protect logos, words, phrases, graphics and other advertising tools used to distinguish companies and their products in the marketplace. Patents protect intellectual property rights related to new and novel inventions including manufactured products, designs of such products, machines and manufacturing processes. Finally, contractual tools are used to help preserve the trade secrets that allow companies their competitive edge in the marketplace. Unlike trademarks, copyrights and patents, contractual tools that protect trademarks are not issued and enforced by the government but are drawn up and enforced by the attorneys retained by individual companies.
These intellectual property distinctions matter for a number of reasons. Some companies looking to safeguard their business practices and innovations incorrectly assume that applying for a government-issued intellectual property protection, such as a patent, will protect their intellectual property interests across the board. In reality, specific intellectual property protections only apply to specialized categories of creative work and innovation. In order to protect a company’s trade secrets, legal alternatives to government-issued protections must be explored with the aid of an experienced attorney.
Protecting Trade Secrets through Contractual Terms
The U.S. government does not have a streamlined process for protecting corporate trade secrets. As a result, it falls to the legal representation retained by each individual company to construct a sound intellectual property strategy that fits any given company’s unique needs and interests. Most of the time, trade secrets are primarily protected through contractual means. When properly drafted and signed by legally competent parties, contracts are legally binding documents. When one or more parties is found to be in breach of a contract’s terms, any contractual party harmed by that breach may sue to have their rights enforced in court. Just as a patent holder could sue if someone infringed upon that inventor’s exclusive intellectual property rights, so can businesses sue if parties to a contract infringe upon their trade secret safeguards.
The two most commonly used contractual tools that attorneys use to safeguard company trade secrets are non-disclosure agreements and non-compete clauses. Non-compete clauses apply to employment contracts. They generally prohibit the affected employee from either starting a competing business or working for a competing business in a certain capacity for a specified length of time and/or within a specified geographical location. These terms help to ensure that your employees will not take the knowledge they have acquired at your company and then use that knowledge to your company’s immediate disadvantage. Similarly, non-disclosure agreements (which may be used with internal employees, vendors, corporate contacts, etc.) prevent parties to those agreements from disclosing information that may compromise the integrity of your trade secrets. Should anyone breach the terms of their non-compete clause or non-disclosure agreement, your business may be able to hold them liable in court for any harm they may cause to your company.
Intellectual Property Guidance Is Available
Obtaining government-issued intellectual property protections is a nice, straightforward way of safeguarding your company’s creative work. But these legal tools do not apply to every form of intellectual property. When it comes to protecting the trade secrets that give your company a competitive edge, your company will benefit from speaking with an experienced intellectual property lawyer and crafting a strategy that will help to meet your business’s unique needs and interests. When appropriate, your attorney will likely talk to you about utilizing non-compete clauses and/or non-disclosure agreements as a part of this broader strategy.
If your company has yet to begin working with an experienced intellectual property lawyer, please consider scheduling a consultation with a LawTrades intellectual property attorney. Each of our lawyers has extensive experience with applying for government-issued intellectual property protections and safeguarding trade secrets through the use of contractual language. We would be happy to answer any questions you may have about our efficient, effective and cost-conscious approach. We look forward to speaking with you.