Small businesses thrive on innovation. For many, a groundbreaking invention or new way of doing things is the very reason the founders went into business in the first place. That makes it essential to protect a small company’s intellectual property. While trademark and copyright protection are fairly straightforward affairs, there’s one type of intellectual property you may not be adequately protecting: your trade secrets.
Canada’s Intellectual Property Office defines trade secrets pretty broadly. Basically, a trade secret is any bit of information that gives (or might give) your business a competitive edge over its competition and which you have taken some steps to keep confidential. Put this way, a unique way of approaching customers via social media could be a trade secret, as could a secret method for preventing wear on machines or tracking company investments. Almost anything you don’t want your competitors to know about is probably a trade secret.
Protecting your company’s trade secrets is a big deal. Even if you depend on them to a relatively small degree, a trade secret is by definition something that helps your company gain an edge, so protecting it is almost always worth the effort.
One way to do this is to require all employees to sign nondisclosure agreements as a condition of employment. These are contracts that impose some kind of penalty, usually civil, on current or former workers who spill the beans about your revolutionary method for making pizza dough or picking the winning derivatives in which to invest.
The World Intellectual Property Organization has rules that are almost as inclusive as the Canadian government’s. According to WIPO rules, you do not even need to register or patent your trade secret for it to be covered. That alone confers a huge advantage over other kinds of intellectual property. Patents and copyrights, for instance, almost always expire some set period after they’re filed. Your trade secrets, however, may potentially live forever. . . assuming nobody leaks them.