Home Blog The Importance of Educating Employees on Intellectual Property and Trademark Laws in the Age of Social Media

The Importance of Educating Employees on Intellectual Property and Trademark Laws in the Age of Social Media

February 05, 2024
Female lawyer outside using her smart phone

The term “intellectual property (IP) and trademark law” immediately conjures images of corporate lawyers dealing with arcane concepts and lawsuits. However, IP and trademark law are not only relevant to legal professionals.

In the current digital era, many professionals require a basic understanding of IP and trademark law for smooth daily operations. Notably, human resources (HR) professionals must be well-versed in IP and trademark laws to educate employees and foster an environment that aligns with IP and trademark ethical and legal standards. Otherwise, employees may engage in behaviors that violate IP laws or expose your company’s IP assets to competitors. The former can expose you to lawsuits and reputation loss, and the latter can decrease your company’s competitive edge.1

This post explores the importance of protecting intellectual property in the age of social media and the need to educate employees on trademark and intellectual property laws.

Basics of Intellectual Property Rights

Before explaining the importance of educating employees on intellectual property (IP) and trademark laws, let’s define intellectual property.

Intellectual property, also known as IP, refers to creations of the mind, such as literary and artistic works, inventions, symbols, designs, and images and names used for business.2

There are four main types of IP:

  • Copyrights are a type of intellectual property that protects a person’s original work as soon as that person fixes the work in a tangible form of expression. Copyrights can protect a wide range of works, including paintings, illustrations, sound recordings, books, computer programs, and movies3
  • Patents are exclusive rights granted for inventions, which are processes or products that provide new ways of doing something4
  • Trade secrets protect confidential information which may be licensed or sold. This information must be commercially valuable due to its secrecy, be known only to a small group of people, and be subject to reasonable steps taken by the rightful holder of the information to keep it private5
  • Trademarks are phrases, words, designs, symbols, or combinations of these things that identify a company’s services or goods. They identify the source of a brand’s services or goods, provide legal protection for a brand, and helps protect against fraud and counterfeiting6

IP laws protect and enforce the IP rights of creators and owners so they have more economic incentives to create intellectual goods. For example, when a business or individual patents their inventions, their inventions are protected by law. The purpose of intellectual property law is to encourage the creation of a large range of intellectual goods for consumers by giving people and businesses property rights to certain intellectual goods.7

The Importance of Intellectual Property Protection in the Era of Social Media Platforms

In today’s highly competitive market, businesses must be extremely cautious about their business strategy and protecting their valuable information. If they aren’t vigilant, trade secrets–such as customer relationships–may be stolen by competitors, leading to a lower bottom line.

However, many companies have been careless regarding protecting IP on social media. For instance, they may neglect to correctly adjust their social media privacy settings, allowing others to access their friends list. This could result in companies losing trade secret protection for important information such as customer and supplier names and contact details, potentially harming their business.

An example is the 2017 case Veronica Foods v. Ecklin, where the court ruled that Veronica Foods’ customer identification constituted a trade secret. However, upon examining Veronica Foods’ social media and website, the court discovered that the company had publicized many of its customer relationships. Ultimately, the court concluded that Veronica Foods could only claim misappropriation of trade secrets for specific customers whose relationships were not publicly disclosed on the internet.

In conclusion, Veronica Foods v. Ecklin shows that companies must correctly adjust their privacy settings and prevent people from accessing their friends list. Otherwise, they can lose trade secret protection for important information that is open to the public.

HR professionals can prevent what happened in the Veronica Foods case by defining the company’s IP, using contracts and agreements to protect against IP theft and leaks, and educating and guiding employees on how to protect IP and trademarks on social media.

How HR Professionals Can Educate Employees on IP and Trademark Law

Employees must follow specific guidelines when posting on social media to avoid infringing on intellectual property (IP) and trademark laws. Otherwise, your company may face negative repercussions, such as legal action or damage to its brand reputation. Here’s how HR professionals can educate employees on IP and trademark law.

Ensure Employee Training and Compliance

HR professionals can integrate comprehensive training programs about IP and trademark laws into employee development. Specifically, they can partner with in-house counsel or an external law firm to create IP and trademark law training courses.

Depending on employees’ schedules, these courses can be held online, offline, or a mix of both. At a bare minimum, employees should understand the following after taking the courses:

  • Identify the different types of intellectual property, particularly those that can be leaked on social media. Examples include taking pictures or videos of innovations that are yet to be registered or licensed, which may be vulnerable to exploitation by competitors
  • Learn how to represent the brand on personal account(s). Employees should know how to avoid IP infringement when posting on their personal account(s). They should understand which company or individual owns a particular patent, design, trade secret, or other type of IP right. Otherwise, employees may post about something that should be kept private, which may ruin your brand. Eventually, others will discover that your employee, and by extension, your company, do not respect IP and trademark laws on their personal account(s)
  • Spot examples of copyright infringement on social media. By the end of their training, employees should be able to identify instances of copyright infringement on social media platforms. For example, employees should understand that, contrary to popular belief, people and companies cannot just take content or images from another person’s social media feed and use it as their own. They should also be able to identify when other companies and individuals have violated their company’s intellectual property rights
  • Recognize fair use of copyrighted material. Employees should understand the concept of fair use in copyright law. This is an affirmative defense that can be used to respond to claims by a copyright owner that a person or company is infringing a copyright
  • Learn how to register copyrights, patents, and trademarks. Employees should also grasp how to register their company’s copyrights, patents, and trademarks to secure legal protection for the company’s IP assets
  • Understand the importance of controlling IP access. Finally, employees should understand the significance of controlling access to the company’s IP assets and recognize how unrestricted access can pose risks to the assets

Guide Social Media Etiquette

Besides ensuring employee training and compliance through employee development programs, HR professionals can also ensure compliance by guiding social media etiquette. They can do this by creating a policy that:

  • Highlights respect for intellectual property, which in turn will boost your brand’s image as a company that cares about IP and other ethical issues
  • Encourages employees to ask permission from internal and external parties before reposting or sharing content
  • Promotes proper attribution when sharing content from other sources
  • Stresses the significance of configuring privacy settings to safeguard personal and company information
  • Reminds employees to be cautious about sharing confidential or proprietary information
  • Implements regular training sessions on evolving social media best practices
  • Establishes clear reporting channels for intellectual property concerns
  • Outlines steps for responding to social media IP concerns, including ways to report incidents to the in-house legal team and C-suite

Learn More About How HR Professionals Can Educate Employees on Intellectual Property and Trademarks

If you’re an HR professional, people manager, union or labor organizer or looking to transition into a worklaw career and want to enhance your understanding of intellectual property (IP) and trademark law, Tulane University can help. Our online Master of Jurisprudence in Labor and Employment Law (MJ-LEL) program can give you a comprehensive grasp of IP and trademark principles. You can then use your knowledge to educate employees on IP and trademarks.

Note, however, that our MJ-LEL, along with our other Master of Jurisprudence (MJ) programs, are distinct from Juris Doctor (JD) degrees, which are awarded to lawyers. In other words, our MJ degrees are not for future lawyers. Instead, they are specifically crafted for non-lawyer professionals who require a level of legal expertise.

Schedule a call with our admissions team to learn more about our MJ-LEL program.