Intellectual Property has been in the news again this week, with a high profile war of words in Formula One between rival teams Aston Martin and Red Bull.

Aston Martin produced a new racing car design which bore some striking similarities to the design of the Red Bull car, and Red Bull made some strong statements raising concerns about theft of intellectual property.

On one hand, Aston Martin said they had been independently working on their designs for a long time, whereas Red Bull said they were going to conduct an internal investigation and had software tools that could uncover evidence of any wrongdoing. Core to the issue were some high profile staff who had left Red Bull to join Aston Martin.

Formula One is a very unique environment for these types of disputes, because all teams have to submit detailed technical data to the sport’s governing body, the FIA. They looked into the information in their possession and have now ruled that there was no issue as far as they are concerned.

This may not be the end of the matter, but even if it does not go forward in a formal sense, there will certainly be hurt feelings and possible reputational impact in the highly charged world of F1.

When it comes to protecting trade secrets one of the key risk factors for a company is staff leaving to work for a competitor.

There is a tension between the fundamental rights of a knowledge worker to use their skill and experience in their new job, versus the rights of a company to protect the fruits of its research and development and not be unfairly compromised.

There are some proactive steps that you can take to protect yourself and minimise risk. When it comes to protecting your own trade secrets, the key aspect is to take “reasonable steps” to safeguard the secret.  This includes first recording the trade secret in some form, and then taking further steps such as making sure that the secret is protected with appropriate IT tools and has its access controlled.

Robust contracts should also be in place with appropriate terms that cover confidentiality obligations covering employees, contractors, collaborators, customers, partners and other third parties.

As well as considering the risks of outgoing employees, it is also worth considering risks involved with incoming employees.  It is important, perhaps as part of staff induction, to educate new employees of the need to respect intellectual property of third parties, and to make sure that they are not bringing with them any IP from their past jobs that could be problematic.

It is also good practice to maintain good records of your R&D activity, so that in the event of an unjustified claim from a competitor, you can produce proof of the independent creation of your products and services.

In this case, Aston Martin would be able to mount a good defence if they have records evidencing the creation of the relevant component designs, and likewise Red Bull have made reference to software tools that they have to aid an internal investigation.  These tools may include version control software, and a variety of monitoring and logging tools which can keep track of employee activity and to safeguard sensitive data, including creating an audit trail of events involving the data.

While the rarefied world of F1 may be an extreme example, it still makes sense to get your procedures and documentation in order!

In the meantime will be watching the next Formula One race with a bit more interest as this story develops!


At Scintilla, we help innovative companies get a grip on their intellectual property. Our unique commercial approach combines registration of patents and trade marks with strategic input so that IP can be a springboard for business growth. If you would like to discuss your IP needs, do contact us or book a free initial consultation!


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