Intellectual property is hard to steal

It’s hard to transfer intellectual property. When I was managing software projects, it would take months to fully transfer a project from one person to another. This was with full access to and encouragement from the original developer. This was a transfer between peers, both part of the same environment with all its institutional memory. If it’s this hard to transfer a project to a colleague, how hard must it be for a competitor to make sense of stolen files?

I’m most familiar with intellectual property in the form of software, but I imagine the same applies to many other forms of intellectual property. Some forms of data are easy to understand, such as a list of passwords. But others, such as source code, require a large amount of context beyond the data. One reason acquisitions fail so often is that the physical assets of a company are not enough. The most valuable assets a company has are often intangible.

Of course companies should protect their intellectual property, but a breach is not necessarily a disaster. On the other hand, the loss of institutional memory may be a disaster.

6 thoughts on “Intellectual property is hard to steal

  1. This is very reminiscent of the famous quote by Howard H. Aiken: “Don’t worry about people stealing an idea. If it’s original, you will have to ram it down their throats.”

  2. This rings true to me as well, and the primary forms of intellectual property that I work with are patents and trade secrets. Often, there is a great deal of institutional knowledge and know-how that actualizes IP. There are rare cases when something super-important is also easy to understand and apply in isolation, but I suspect that is the exception.

  3. On another note, the most successful acquisitions I am aware of involve not just IP, but the people and organization as well. Buy the whole thing, and then integrate it all.

  4. Depends on what it’s being stolen for. You’re talking about stealing-for-modification which *is* hard to do. But stealing-for-use or stealing-for-redistribution would be very easy to accomplish. A competitor could easily take your software, brand it as their own and try to sell it.

  5. We’ve got the opposite problem in chemistry: There is basically no protection on what we do until it is published, and, as my boss says, good ideas are rare. You have to be careful what you tell people about your research or one of the people with a 40-person research group will take it, chop it up into a few bits and feed it to a few grad students who will churn it out faster then you can finish and publish it.

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