How do You Protect Intellectual Property in a Remote Company?

Companies which are suitable for a fully remote-first operation are usually companies which are creative in some way.  One of the great advantages of remote work is the creative freedom and ability to harness the diverse imaginations of talent around the world. 

With any creative work, whether it is a program or a design or an approach, comes a need to protect intellectual property.

Such protections are difficult across legal jurisdictions of all kinds, but they are not impossible.  Like most aspects of remote work, the key is being aware and setting up your intellectual property protection deliberately, clearly, and comprehensively.  It is also very much the same as any company except for a few easily identified and controlled differences.

Key Aspects of Intellectual Property Protection

When we think of intellectual property protection, the first thing that comes to mind are patents, copyrights, and trademarks.  Most intellectual property, however, revolves around company procedures and internal matters. It is often kept as a “trade secret” that is not revealed to the world through any kind of legal filing.

Intellectual property is any creation of the mind.  This covers nearly everything a digital company produces.  

Trade secrets of any kind are generally protected in all nations according to local laws.  Where it becomes tricky are the workers themselves who know how your company works and carry the intellectual property in their heads.  For this reason, intellectual property protection usually includes non-disclosure agreements and, in many cases, non-compete agreements.

Drafting Legal Agreements

If you do business in one nation, legal protection for these aspects is simple.  It takes only one agreement drafted by an attorney to secure your intellectual property. 

When you have a remote worker in a nation other than where your company is registered, it is important that you have agreements drafted in both nations.  They may not be exactly the same, owing to local laws, but they will allow any potential action to take place in any jurisdiction. These agreements should include:

  • Intellectual Property Assignment, stating that all patentable material is the property of the company.
  • Non-Disclosure Agreement, stating that trade secrets will not be shared, and
  • Non-Compete Agreements, if applicable.

A non-compete agreement may not be valid or enforceable in many localities, including some US states.  It can be useful, however, to state terms of going to another company and what is protected up front no matter what the local laws are.

For employees who are working in particularly sensitive areas that you may want to keep as trade secrets, you should consider a thorough background check as well. This can be more difficult to conduct in another nation, but it is also more critical.  Make good use of references and be sure to ask them about all past work in areas that overlap with your company and its intellectual property portfolio.

Define Your Intellectual Property

The key to intellectual property protection in all nations, regardless of laws, is a clear understanding of what you are protecting.  It is vital that you review internally what trade secrets and practices you consider worthy of protection and review them with your employees.  Like many aspects of remote work, this is a good practice for any company.

When you have workers in other nations, however, this process of review can be subject to local laws as well.  What matters most is that everyone knows what is covered by the agreements they have signed and that they explicitly recognize these items.  

While this sounds like a lot of legalese, it does not have to be.  Simply making your employees well aware of the new and innovative things they are creating can be a joyful experience worth celebrating.  

Restricting Access

In general, it is a good practice for intellectual property protection to restrict access to company information on a “need to know” basis.  This can get in the way of the creative process, however, and may be too restrictive.  

This is always an option, however, and should be considered.  Once you know what your key intellectual property is, you can selectively restrict access to it and protect it.  This may apply more selectively to workers in nations whose intellectual property protection is weaker than others.

Adding Layers of Security

One especially important consideration of intellectual property protection in any remote-first company is the equipment that is used.  The fact that workers are remote makes adding layers of security more difficult for a remote company.  There are very clear and important steps you can take, however, to increase your protection.

A common “cloud” or shared data space can help to mitigate this problem.  If the data itself is entirely stored by the company, and protected appropriately, layers of access can be implemented which restrict who can obtain the information.

The problem comes when an employee leaves, however.  There will be some information that you consider at least sensitive on any device which they have worked on during their tenure with your company.  For this reason alone, it may make sense to have all remote workers use computers which you own and can retrieve once they leave.  

This is not complete protection, but it does help.

Additional Intellectual Property Considerations

Intellectual property protection is very well defined around the globe.  The variations in laws are within certain boundaries and they should be explained easily by any attorney well versed in the subject.  You should ask for the differences up front, in writing, and make a point of understanding them. This will help you work with the intellectual property you have outlined as part of your regular review.

The Mindset

The most critical aspect of intellectual property protection is exactly the same as what makes a remote-first company successful.  In both cases, it is about the mindset and deliberate way that you set policies and execute them with daily habits.

Intellectual property protection needs to be built into every aspect of your company, from the initial screening of employees to the onboarding process through the daily setting and schedule for their work.  But this does not mean that it has to be intrusive or in some way counter to the creative process necessary for most remote-first companies.

These steps, including a periodic review of what is unique about your company, and what it has produced, can and should be part of a mindset of creation that happens to include intellectual property protection.  Awareness and deliberate action support operations, creativity, and legal protection equally in a company that celebrates its intellectual property.

None of this changes with a remote workforce, but there are more things to be aware of.  Constant engagement on intellectual property issues helps this process in every way, especially across international borders.