In our continuing our series, “Mind Your Own Business”, this article explores the crucial aspect of protecting your intellectual property (IP) in the workplace. Intellectual property encompasses intangible assets such as patents, trade marks, copyrights, designs and trade secrets, which are essential for maintaining a competitive edge in the market. The recent court matter involving EOH was a significant legal precedent in South African labour law – and provides helpful lessons as we examine the importance of safeguarding your IP and the consequences of failing to protect it.

Intellectual Property represents the fruits of your business’ creativity, innovation, and unique processes. It includes proprietary information, innovative technologies, customer databases, branding elements, and trade secrets. Protecting this IP is crucial to retaining a competitive advantage and securing your business’ sustainability.

Failing to protect Intellectual Property can have severe consequences. The case of EOH Abantu (Pty) Ltd v Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration & others (2019) serves as a cautionary tale. In this matter, an employee negligently distributed valuable Intellectual Property belonging to one of the company’s main clients. Such actions not only exposed the employer to potential legal disputes but also risked reputational harm if the clients perceived that their Intellectual Property was not handled with due care. The court ruled that the employee’s conduct justified a loss of trust, and as a result, the dismissal of the employee was deemed fair due to the seriousness of the wrongful distribution of valuable Intellectual Property.

This highlights the importance of including Confidentiality Clauses in employment contracts, which are vital for safeguarding your business’ Intellectual Property. By explicitly outlining the duty of employees to protect sensitive information and trade secrets, you can mitigate the risk of unauthorised disclosure and misuse.

Failing to protect your IP and implement proper confidentiality measures can lead to significant legal repercussions. Breach of confidentiality can result in legal actions, damage to business relationships, loss of competitive advantage, and reputational damage.

To protect your IP effectively, consider the following strategies:

  1. Confidentiality Agreements: Ensure that all employees sign confidentiality agreements to safeguard sensitive business information.
  2. Regular Training: Educate employees on the value of Intellectual Property, the importance of confidentiality, and the legal consequences of IP misuse.
  3. Access Controls: Implement access controls to restrict the dissemination of sensitive information to only those who need it.
  4. Intellectual Property Registration: Register your rights to patents, trade marks, and copyright items to establish legal ownership and deter infringement.

The EOH case is a critical reminder of the importance of protecting your intellectual property in the workplace. Safeguarding your business’ innovations, trade secrets, and proprietary information is essential for maintaining a competitive edge and ensuring long-term success.

By implementing comprehensive confidentiality clauses, educating your employees, and adopting proactive IP protection strategies, you can minimise the risk of IP misuse and potential legal challenges.

By Annelien Breed | Executive Director (CEO SA)