Tuesday, August 01, 2006, 8/01/2006 06:36:00 AM

Q: Who's in Charge of the Trade Secrets Here? A: Usually No One.

Put that question to someone in the know at most U.S. companies and the effective answer that you'll get is that no one is in charge.

That doesn't mean that there are not individuals in charge of aspects of the company's trade secrets. The problem is that there's no single person who's responsible. And that's a problem because if no one person is responsible, that means no one's really in charge and -- as sure as day follows night -- trouble is on the horizon.

What do I mean? Think about this: the HR Department is probably in charge of making sure that employees sign confidentiality agreements. The General Counsel (or someone in his or her office) is probably in charge of keeping track of what information falls into the category of trade secrets because it's not patentable or copyrightable. They may even pay attention to contractual confidentiality issues for vendors, customers, consultants and affiliates.

Some IT guy is probably in charge of the security of the computer network, usually making sure that bad stuff like viruses and hackers doesn't get in. Sometimes the IT Department may even pay attention that good stuff -- like trade secrets -- doesn't go out in ways that are unauthorized. There's very likely someone in charge of physical plant security whose job is to make sure that company property doesn't leave in people's trunks (an unlikely place, I'll admit, to smuggle out trade secrets).

Do you see the problem now? With all those folks with some responsibility, but no one with overall responsibility, things will slip between the cracks. This is where most companies go wrong. Plenty of companies now have an individual designated "Chief Privacy Officer." How many have a Chief Security Officer responsible for all aspects of a company's confidential information including trade secrets?

Damn few.

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