The Law and Ethics of CI

The SLA Competitive Intelligence Division sponsored a very informative session Monday morning that helped to delineate the legal and ethical aspects of working in CI. Lawyer Richard Horowitz gave a fascinating and entertaining presentation filled with great examples and test (trick) questions. He stressed the importance of understanding the law as essential to making an ethical judgment. And, when it comes to ethics, different industries have different standards. While I’m not a CI professional, I found the explanations and distinctions fascinating and helpful for many information situations.

There are two ways to protect a company’s information, patents and trade secrets—and each has advantages and disadvantages. Patents provide IP protection but that brilliant idea is now public information. Trade secrets aren’t public but competitors could figure them out using legal means and then imitate. A trade secret is information that gives economic advantage, information that is not in the public domain, and information you’ve taken reasonable precautions to protect.

Here’s an example of a real world scenario that surprised me. A competitor lies at a tradeshow and says he’s a student in order to see a company’s presentation—and this isn’t specifically illegal. According to the law, people can do a lot of miserable and despicable things that are generally considered unethical.

Here are some of the things I learned (I guess I just hadn’t thought like a lawyer):
• It’s not illegal to lie, though laws can make it illegal in specific circumstances (misrepresenting yourself to a financial institution, for example)
• There is no legal duty to rescue someone
• Inducement is a key issue, as in misrepresentation that induces a breach of confidence
• The onus is on information holders to protect their information

Paula J. Hane
News Bureau Chief, ITI

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