As the world becomes more interconnected, companies find themselves in increasingly distributed and collaborative supply chains. The myriad benefits of flexibility and efficiency come along with increased risks as companies relinquish control over processes, materials, and intellectual property (IP). While risks in processes and materials are widely discussed, the intangible yet intricate issue of IP protection gains more strategic importance and warrants more discussion.  

The Nextlabs whitepaper “Intellectual Property Protection” describes some of the key challenges to protecting IP within the collaborative supply chain, outlines ten real-world best practices for managing those risks, and describes the NextLabs’ solution for implementing those best practices. 

IP Protection Challenges 

A globalized supply chain and diversified workforce allow enterprises in various industries to enjoy better technology and work efficiency with lower cost and more flexibility. Various industries share these benefits, such as High Tech, Capital Equipment, Aerospace and Defense, and Chemical, which also share the challenges of protecting IP within collaborative supply chains, as IP can be easily transformed, duplicated, and shared: 

  • Outsourced manufacturing: OEMs share a large amount of data when they outsource the manufacturing of components to contract manufacturers. OEMs need to make sure to only share the appropriate level of IP with contract manufacturers, and contractors need to ensure IP is properly protected within their organizations.   
  • Global product development: When enterprises allocate components of product development in global locations, there is a need to address the associated compliance and information risk with increased complexity for managing different local regulatory compliance.  
  • Mobile workforce or mobile data: Remote and hybrid work is widely welcomed as it provides greater flexibility and productivity, but the mobile workflow also takes company IP on the road, often on unprotected laptops, mobile devices, or removable storage that can easily be lost or stolen. 
  • Collaborative technologies: Many collaborative technologies such as email, instant messaging, and software-as-a-service (SaaS) lack mandatory controls over information shared both internally and externally, making the boundary between authorized external collaboration and external data loss unclear.  

IP Protection Best Practices 

In the collaborative supply chain, organizations need to take a risk management approach to IP protection: identify risks, tackle the largest ones first, design controls (policies and procedures) to address those risks, implement and audit the effectiveness of these controls, and repeat as necessary. 

Throughout this process, it is vital to take a data-centric approach, as data can easily be downloaded, transformed, copied, and shared. Thus, protection must span applications, servers, desktops, and communication channels.  

To efficiently classify data and manage access accordingly, it is helpful to label data with business attributes, such as the type of date or document, the project it is for, and the organization it belongs to. These business attributes would change infrequently compared to classification based on data sensitivity, which are often non-prescriptive and can change several times over its lifecycle. This enables data classification to remain relatively constant and straightforward for end users to apply.  

Based on these attributes, policies that are clear, simple, and easy-to-remember should be established to ensure that the appropriate protection is applied to IP as it is created, stored, and shared. These policies should be consistently enforced with tools such as access controls to meet current and future needs of the enterprise and be automated to increase productivity and ensure compliance.   

IP protection extends beyond technical transformation and requires systematic awareness within the organization and extended enterprise. It is crucial to educate employees about policy application and ensure the integration of IP protection into daily workflows. Equally important is to track and record the level of collaboration and information sharing with external partners to have visibility over the access, use, and sharing of sensitive IP. Once the controls are in place, organizations should continuously monitor and analyze critical data use, and audit the control mechanisms to reduce the risks of data breaches and regulatory incompliance in a cost-efficient manner.  

Solution for IP Protection in the Collaborative Supply Chain 

NextLabs provides a number of applications for both OEMs and contract manufacturers that help companies manage IP risk. Each application provides prebuilt controls (policies and procedures) and audit reports that can be automatically enforced by NextLabs Application Enforcer and NextLabs Data Protection. The products can support companies that are looking for a safer collaboration within global supply chains in the following aspects and more:  

  • IP classification and monitoring: Tags can be automatically applied to documents as they are created, stored or shared based on identity, context, and content. Automatically enforced data usage monitoring, policy auditing, and analytical reports.  
  • Project-based access and document control: Control access to IP across multiple applications or systems based on project assignments for employees, supply chain partners and customers. A single set of policies is used to manage how IP documents can be used, stored, duplicated, and shared to prevent leakage of data to unauthorized employees, contractors, customers, or partners. 
  • Content-based whitelisting: With content-aware application whitelisting, a whitelist of approved tools can be created for specific classes for data (based on metadata, tags, or content inspection) or users. Whitelisting also extends to removable devices such as removable USB, Firewire, and CD/DVD media with automated data protection procedures such as encryption, logging, and manager approvals. 
  • Distribution Controls: Global policies ensure that IP is shared with external partners or customers using the appropriate channel with the right level of data security. When a potential misdirection of file transfer is detected, an integrated remediation workflow alerts the users of the possible misdirection and allows them to make changes to the transfer, which is logged for audit purposes.  
  • Mobile data management: When sensitive IP is downloaded to laptops or removable storage, policies can be used to automatically encrypt the files.  
  • Endpoint data loss prevention (DLP): Endpoint DLP uses content analysis techniques to detect cases where sensitive IP is being leaked over endpoint ports and protocols in the Cloud and on-premises.  

Download the white paper to learn more about the best practices for IP protection and solutions offered by NextLabs products.