Is your intellectual property safe?

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The same features that make the Internet so attractive-its vastness and high speed-also make it a dangerous place for companies to post intellectual property such as white papers, commissioned research, photos, or even corporate logos. While no electronic delivery system is perfect, the best way a company can ensure that its online intellectual property isn't wrongfully posted on another Web site is to keep it offline. There are, however, a handful of precautionary steps companies can take if they're adamant about sharing their IP with site visitors.

Businesses must identify the purpose of their site, determine whether offering IP will help accomplish this end, and weigh the risks of posting IP against the advantages, said Stephen Attanasio, president and CEO of Wiznet Inc., a Del Ray Beach, Fla.-based company that helps Web-based clients translate content from old legacy formats onto the Internet.

No quick fix

Some companies fail to differentiate between IP and general information, he said, an oversight that can ultimately land them in trouble. Displaying general information, such as a commentary or analysis of trends in a particular industry, is no big deal. But IP is a different story; in the wrong hands, it can threaten a company's competitive edge and harm its brand, he said.

Attanasio, who addressed this issue last July before the Federal Trade Commission, said the biggest mistake companies make is to falsely assume that technology fixes everything. Take, for instance, filters that require Web site visitors to register or pay a nominal fee before online material is displayed. While they offer some measure of protection, he said, there's still no guarantee that IP will be safe because people can lie when registering or can share information with unregistered colleagues.

Attanasio said senior managers must get involved by helping others in their organization understand the significance of IP and treating it as a valuable asset that sometimes is best kept out of public view. "The only way to not have IP lifted or stolen is to not put it online," he said. "We all have to be in constant vigilance that our IP doesn't end up where we don't want it to be."

Some companies, such as Verida Internet Corp. in San Francisco, keep logs of Web site visitors and then scan the names for potential competitors. The high-tech firm, which builds and operates Internet markets, maintains a hit list of its top competitors and monitors their Web sites to ensure that IP isn't being ripped off and brand isn't being abused, said Michael Hinshaw, president and CEO of Verida Internet.

Verida's sales department also follows up with Web site visitors who request proprietary information, and its investor relations staff monitors Internet chat rooms to dispel company rumors or inaccuracies, as well as to learn how the company is perceived in the industry.

Online protection

Still, Hinshaw said, protecting a company's brand online is really no different from how this is done offline. "Your brand isn't just about your Web site, but how you communicate with your customers and prospects on an ongoing basis," he said. "Know your customers and make sure they know you. That way, someone developing an inappropriate perception of who you are will stand a much lower chance of negatively harming your bottom line."

Recent research supports his stance. Andersen Consulting has just completed a portion of a national study involving 125 b-to-b buyers who represent the computer hardware, industrial chemical, energy services and paperboard or forest industries. Surprisingly, the surveyed buyers prefer that dissemination of IP be limited to valued customers and believe that sharing IP with the general public could destroy brand value, said Stephen Dull, partner with Andersen's customer relationship management practice in Atlanta.

What's more, Dull said, buyers in all categories indicated they would swap IP for other services that impact brand preference and help build client relations, such as enhanced customer service, a larger variety of pricing levels and a greater diversity of products and suppliers featured on a company's Web site.

"A company that wants to protect its IP could pull back on sharing it," Dull said. "There are a lot of other ways to build brand value and strengthen customer relationships without taking the risk of sharing IP."

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