In the internet era, a lot of attention and emphasis is put on cyber security—and for good reason. The financial and practical threat from data breaches and information theft is incredibly high, as we’ve seen over and over with high profile hacks such as Yahoo—where 500 million user accounts were compromised by a “state sponsored” hacker—as well as other major retailers and companies.
While the threat of data breaches certainly warrants this attention, it has the unfortunate side effect of overshadowing another potential vulnerability in the online era: intellectual property theft. It’s easy to overlook this fact due to the ephemeral and distributed nature of the internet, but each time someone creates something and puts it online, they do in a sense own the intellectual property to that piece of content. However, with few ways to monitor or flag when another person has passed off a piece of content they did not create as their own, we often don’t realize the pervasive threat of IP theft. It could happen at any time, carried out by anyone.
While a single person who is unaware of IP laws inadvertently repurposing content may not be a huge concern for some people, the potential for cyber-attackers to steal intellectual property from large corporations for nefarious purposes is another matter. Whether or not they realize it, he fact of the matter is that most of the world’s largest companies deal in information, not tangible assets. Some of this information is public, while much of it is private (and could be very harmful if released). One compelling piece of proof on that fact is that “across the S&P 500, companies’ total value consisted of 87% intellectual property and just 13% tangible assets in 2015, according to a report from Ocean Tomo, the IP merchant bank.” We do, after all, live in the information economy—and that information is worth money.
The danger comes from the fact that many of these corporates that are vulnerable to IP theft aren’t actually aware of it. A new survey about cyberattacks and IP from the consulting firm Deloitte—which surveyed professionals in sectors like banking, financial services, retail, wholesale and distribution, travel and hospitality, insurance, Internet, IT and startups—found that “The number of intellectual property (IP) cyber theft incidents in the next 12 months is expected to increase.” However, at the same time, “32% admitted they didn’t even know if their own company had suffered IP cybertheft in the past year.”
Recognizing IP theft as a threat is the first line of defense. Companies have to understand that in the information age, much of their success relies on keeping their company’s IP away from competitors. If a unique piece of code or operating procedure is what constitutes a company’s unique selling point and gives them a competitive edge in the marketplace, making that public could spell doom for their bottom line.
As TechCrunch wrote on the matter, “Getting over IP theft involves figuring out what company secrets were accessed, by whom and when, where they may have been distributed, how a company, its customers and partners could be impacted by the IP theft, and explaining what happened to investors, while also figuring out what legal action to take, and how to tweak IP to regain a competitive advantage if one has been lost.”
Once your IP has been made public, it’s hard to put it “back in the box” so to speak. After all, if your company has built up an entire business offering based on a single piece of IP, it won’t be worth much once it’s no longer proprietary. It’s much better to be preemptive and protect your IP before it’s too late.