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Key findings of survey:

  • Four out of five (82%) senior executives say their trade secrets are an important, if not essential, part of their business, while 60% say protecting their trade secrets is a board-level issue
  • One in five companies think or know they have had trade secrets stolen
  • But only one-third of companies maintain inventories of their trade secrets and have action plan for responding to trade secret theft
  • Theft by ex-employees and third-party suppliers are the biggest sources of anxiety among two-thirds of executives

Driven by the furious pace of technological advancement, companies across industries are engaged in an unprecedented race to innovate. In turn, this rapid rate of innovation has caused trade secrets to become an increasingly preferred method of intellectual property protection, pushing the issue of trade secrets into corporate boardrooms. But is trade secret protection being tackled the way it should?

In a survey of over 400 senior executives across five industries by leading global law firm Baker McKenzie and Euromoney Institutional Investor Thought Leadership, the findings reveal that the vast majority of these executives place great importance on trade secrets. In fact, almost half (48%) of those executives said their trade secrets were more important than their patents and trademarks.

The attention that companies give to protecting their trade secrets can mean the difference between success and failure, which underscores why most of the executives in our survey said trade secrets play an important, if not essential, part in their corporate strategy. Nearly one-third ranked the issue among their top five concerns, reflecting the rise in value of trade secrets in our digital age.

"Throughout modern corporate history, some companies have gone to great lengths to safeguard their trade secrets. Colonel Sander’s handwritten original recipe for Kentucky Fried Chicken was famously kept locked in a safe at KFC Corporate headquarters. Today’s trade secrets are more susceptible to the threat of being hacked or downloaded, but they are of no less value to the companies that own them," says Paul Rawlinson, global chair of Baker McKenzie. "One of the more concerning survey findings was the fact that less than one-third of companies have taken basic measures to protect their trade secrets."

By industry, 46% of the financial services executives in our survey said they consider trade secrets essential to their corporate strategy – the highest of any sector, followed by industrials and ICT (both 41%). This compares with 27% among consumer goods and retail executives.

Disconnection between importance and protection 

Despite the growing commercial power of trade secrets, many of those same executives admitted not taking basic steps to preserve them, reflecting a marked disconnect between the importance that corporate executives place on their trade secrets and the measures they are taking to protect them. In fact, only one in three companies maintain an inventory of their trade secrets and has an action plan for responding to trade secret theft.

These findings are worrying at a time when incidents of trade secret theft continue to rise, driven by the acceleration of innovation across global industry. Our survey also reveals that more than one-third of companies have suffered trade secret theft. The healthcare industry is by far the most targeted, with 33% of these executives reporting that they've suffered trade secret theft. Notably and somewhat surprisingly in light of recent hacker attacks, corporate leaders most fear theft by former employees and third-party suppliers.

"Given that trade secrets are no longer protected once they become public and companies have no legal recourse unless they can prove the information was both valuable and secret, the question is whether the corporate world should be doing more to manage this risk," says Kevin O'Brien, chair of Baker McKenzie's North America Intellectual Property Practice.
What companies need to do

The rising awareness of the importance of trade secrets is significant, but it's only the first step of the process. It's important that corporate leaders appreciate the magnitude of their responsibility.

“Most companies understand the need to protect their trade secrets but the big difference is identifying which of their trade secrets are of most value, and that varies from company to company,” Kevin O’Brien says.

The survey calls for companies to implement appropriate protective measures — from  securing computer networks and monitoring employee electronic use to providing training, developing corporate policies, and requiring anyone who comes into contact with trade secrets to sign non-disclosure agreements. 

“Companies are on the front line of the battle because they are the victims,” says David Lashway, co-chair of Baker McKenzie's Global Cybersecurity Practice. “They do have an obligation to identify and protect trade secrets. But if a nation state actor has prioritized stealing their trade secrets as part of its national agenda for economic growth, the idea that a company is going to be able to successfully protect itself by itself is challenging to say the least.”

Recognizing their growing economic importance, the world's largest economies created new laws last year to protect this type of valuable information — the US Defend Trade Secrets Act and the EU Trade Secrets Directive. Both laws reinforce the fact that corporate executives can no longer ignore their obligation to safeguard their trade secrets.

To learn more about how multinational companies view their trade secrets, who they see as the greatest threats to those secrets and what they do to protect them, read our full report, The Board Ultimatum: Protect & Preserve. To learn what you can do to protect your own trade secrets, read our guide on the practical steps companies can take to protect their trade secrets.

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