Changing perspective: why you should never underestimate trade secrets’ power

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If you heard about a threat that had already caused a loss of EUR60 billion in economic growth and almost 289000 jobs in Europe alone, that could lead to the loss of one million jobs by 2025, you’d try to do something about it, wouldn’t you?

Those are the estimated losses caused by the theft of trade secrets due to cyber-espionage only. From states to single companies, no one is doing enough to stop this problem.

It is important to change our perspective, to understand what trade secrets are and why they are so relevant, so you and your company can put adequate protection in place, especially when doing business outside Europe.

Starting with the basics: a trade secret is a piece of confidential business information that can be of considerable commercial value and can provide an enterprise with a competitive edge.

In other words, a trade secret can be anything from manufacturing processes or sales or distribution methods to consumer profiles, from advertising strategies to lists of suppliers and clients — as long as it is relevant for your business and you are keeping it secret.

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Most of the legislation used to protect information as a trade secret (and to prosecute infringers) requires companies to put some form of defence in place to protect the confidentiality of the information.

Trade secrets do not need to be registered to be protected and, as long as they are kept as secrets, the legal safeguards last forever.

A recent study commissioned by the European Commission (complete text here, executive summary here) shows that companies, especially SMEs, underestimate both the value of their trade secrets and the chances that they might get stolen due to cybercrime.

Consequentially, companies, especially SMEs, tend to underestimate the impact of a breach in their security. A stolen trade secret can lead to at least four kinds of economic damage.

  • Opportunity costs: the loss of business opportunities and market shares.
  • Negative impacts on innovation: companies lose their investments in R&D when their knowledge is stolen and given to the public.
  • Increase in the cost of cybersecurity: if the company has been attacked the costs of cleaning up the system can be very high, as can increases in cybersecurity insurance.
  • Reputational damage: if the fact that a company has been hacked becomes public knowledge, this will reduce the trust of investors, business partners and even consumers.

The report highlighted the importance of awareness among companies in terms of preventing the loss of trade secrets. A solid legal framework is not enough, you have to do your part, and put necessary protections in place.

SMEs are the main target of cyber thieves and make up the majority of cyber-espionage victims because their cybersecurity protocols are weaker than those of big companies.

Cyber-espionage mostly involves external perpetrators. This is a large part of the problem, but it’s not the only issue. Especially when you are doing business in South-East Asia.

Other kinds of barriers must be taken into consideration. The most basic protection is probably afforded by physical barriersstore the secret information in an undisclosed physical location that only some employees have access to.

Physical barriers can seem outdated now, and they probably are when it comes to documents (who doesn’t store them on a computer nowadays?). However, they are still relevant when you admit potential partners, or indeed visitors in general, to your premises. Make sure that they cannot take pictures of your innovative products and have them sign non-disclosure agreements (NDAs).

Technical barriers are the most relevant against cybercrime in general and cyber theft in particular. They consist of various information technology (IT) systems that safely store your secrets. They can be expensive, but, as the experts stress, the lack of adequate protection is exactly what makes SMEs the perfect prey for cyber-attacks. There are some basic steps you can implement yourself, from a good password system to basic encryption. However, it’s even more important to develop an IT strategy (for example, you should make it impossible for documents to be shared via the internet or saved on physical devices like USB sticks), possibly with the help of a specialist, and prepare a written technology policy agreement. Make sure that all your employees have read and signed NDAs.

gold-padlock-locking-door-164425Written agreements are among your best weapons when it comes to protecting your trade secrets. Having people sign an NDA will make them conscious of their actions and ensure they think twice before betraying your trust. Having an NDA in place will also make them legally liable for sharing a secret.

When you’re doing business in South-East Asia, it’s of great importance to have your agreements in the local language. This prevents the other party from claiming that they did not understand their confidentiality obligation.

Having a solid NDA in place is not only important for your relationship with your employees and partners (or potential partners), but also for your relationship with your suppliers and subcontractors.

NDAs are essential in a well-drafted trade secret strategy, but they are not the only element of it. Alongside the technology policy agreements already mentioned, a role can be played by non-competition and non-solicitation clauses in employment contracts. These kind of clauses prevent your former employees from using your list of clients in their new position. Singapore and Malaysia are the most favourable countries for these kind of agreements.

You can also upgrade your NDAs, following the Chinese practice you can draft a non-disclosure, non-use, non-circumvention (NNN) agreement. The idea is to bind your counterpart to strict confidentiality. They are not allowed to disseminate the information (as in an NDA), and nor can they use it for their advantage or circumvent the agreement with anticompetitive practices. The idea is to combine secrecy and non-competition elements.

Even in Europe, trade secret thieves can be hard to prosecute due to the difficulty involved with supplying adequate proof. It’s better to put prevention safeguards in place. After all, prevention is better than medicine.

An even higher level of caution needs to be in place when doing business in South-East Asia. Keep in mind that most ASEAN courts tend to favour a local labour force using knowledge acquired in their previous jobs to make a living, without paying too much attention to the fact that the information might be a valuable trade secret belonging to a former employer.

Many countries (such as Brunei and Cambodia) do not have proper protections for trade secrets in place, and in others (like Myanmar), trade secrets are only protected under contract law, so there is no protection without a contractual relationship.

In Indonesia, trade secrets are protected only when an unlawful appropriation can be proven. To prove an unlawful appropriation you have show that there was an NDA in place and that it was breached, or that your IT or physical protections were abused.

At the moment, the law in Thailand imposing registration on trade secrets is suspended. However, if you are doing business in the country, it’s better to keep a very close eye on this.

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Even in countries like Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and Vietnam, where relatively sound protections for trade secrets are in place, it can be difficult to protect yourself in the absence of a contract.

To sum up: trade secrets are valuable intangible assets that do not need any registration and potentially last forever. However, you have to learn how to protect your valuable information from cyber thieves, unfaithful partners or greedy former employees.

The first step is to recognise what your secrets are, and then draft your strategy accordingly.

If you have any doubts or questions do not hesitate to reach out to us. The South-East Asia IPR SME HD offers free support to all EU SMEs.

 

Marta Bettinazzi

IP Business Advisor

South-East Asia IPR SME Helpdesk

E: marta.bettinazzi@southeastasia-iprhelpdesk.eu

W: www.southeastasia-iprhelpdesk.eu

 

Cambodia applied online Registration System for Trade Marks

shutterstock_152628707Good news for all the European SMEs wishing to do business in Cambodia, it is now possible to file trade mark registration applications online. Today’s blog post has been kindly shared with us by our South-East Asia IPR SME Helpdesk external expert Mr. Nguyen Hoa Binh from Daitin & Associates. In this blog post Mr. Nguyen Hoa Binh explains the new online application process in more detail. 

On 25 May 2017, the Ministry of Commerce in Cambodia launched online trade mark filing system.

The new launched online filing system allow Applicant to file applications to register their trade marks online.

Accordingly, Applicants can upload the required documents and information through the online trade mark filing system.

The trademark applicant can also conduct preliminary trademark search from the Cambodia Department of Intellectual Property database.

Under the Prakas (Regulation) issued by the Ministry of Commerce on May 4, 2017, an applicant with permanent residence or principal place of business inside Cambodia can use this system.

The applicant has to request in writing to the DIP for a user name and password. For foreign applicants, the system can only be used through a registered Cambodian trademark agent.

Once the trademark application has been filed, when the applicant is represented by an agent, the original, notarized power of attorney, along with any priority documents, must be submitted in hard copy to the Department of Intellectual Property within two months from the filing date. Continue reading “Cambodia applied online Registration System for Trade Marks” »

Validation of European Patent in Cambodia

shutterstock_166598477Good news for the European SMEs wishing to do business in Cambodia, it’s now possible to validate European patents in Cambodia. Today’s blog post on validation of European patent in Cambodia has been kindly drafted for us by our external IPR expert Dr. Phin Sovath from Bun & Associates. In this blog post, Dr. Phin further explains the Agreement on Validation of European Patent between the Royal Government of Cambodia and the European Patent Office.

Summary

On 1st March 2018, the Agreement on Validation of European Patent (the “Validation Agreement”) enters into force in Cambodia. Henceforth, it is possible to request for validation of the European patent in Cambodia and thus obtain the same protection as national patent granted by the Ministry of Industry and Handicraft (the “MIH”).

In January 2017, the Royal Government of Cambodia and the EPO entered into Agreement on Validation of European Patent. In November 2017, the law on ratification of the Validation Agreement was promulgated. And from 1st March 2018 onward, the European patent holder may request for its validation in Cambodia through a simplified and accelerated procedure set forth in the Prakas No. 282 MIH/2017 dated 08 December 2017 of the Ministry of Industry and Handicraft (the “Prakas No.282 MIH/2017”).

In accordance with Prakas No. 282 MIH/2017, the validation procedure is applicable to both European patent and European patent application which refers to either the patent application filed with the EPO under the framework of the European Patent Convention (the “EPC”) or the international application for patent registration filed under the framework of the Patent Cooperation Treaty (the “PCT”) having designation of both the EPO and Cambodia. Moreover, the eligible European patent and European patent application will have a filing date on or after the date of entry into force of the Validation Agreement in Cambodia, i.e. 1st March 2018. Continue reading “Validation of European Patent in Cambodia” »

IP Considerations for the Automotive Industry in South-East Asia

shift-1838138_1920 In today’s blog post we are taking a closer look at IP protection in South-East Asia for the Automotive Industry, which continues to offer many business opportunities for the European SMEs. You will learn about patent protection and when it would be wiser to relay on trade secrets instead. We will also discuss how you can protect the design of your products and how to take care of your brand. 

The automotive industry in South-East Asia has exhibited robust growth over the last few years. According to the latest statistics from the ASEAN Automotive Federation, combined motor vehicle sales in 7 major ASEAN countries (Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam and Brunei) reached 3.16 million in 2016[1], almost double the sales figure in 2006. Underpinned by increasing disposable income throughout the region and increasing demand for motor vehicles South-East Asia’s automotive market is expected to continue to grow rapidly. This also means that there will be promising business opportunities for European SMEs whose expertise and technology are especially sought after.

Taking into account the constant innovation that is at the forefront of the automotive industry, the importance of intellectual property as well as its protection and enforcement, are undeniable. Thus, when exploring the possibility of investing or expanding into the South-East Asian markets, European SMEs should be aware of the IP risks that they will face when operating in this region, in particular with respect to the new technologies and the ability to protect these technologies from local competitors. A comprehensive IP strategy is needed for succeeding in South-east Asia’s markets. Continue reading “IP Considerations for the Automotive Industry in South-East Asia” »

IP Considerations for ICT Industry in South-East Asia

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The ICT sector is considered to play a pivotal role in supporting regional integration and connectivity efforts between the countries in South-East Asia. The latest ASEAN ICT Industry Masterplan 2016-2020 aims to propel ASEAN towards a digitally-enabled economy that is secure, sustainable, and transformative and to enable an innovative, inclusive and integrated ASEAN Community[1]. The ICT industry is one of the sectors presenting major business growth opportunities for EU SMEs in South-East Asia.

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Continue reading “IP Considerations for ICT Industry in South-East Asia” »