Summary:

Once upon a time, companies refused to let employees take their work home and forbade the use of digital media transfer devices. All to preserve the company’s intellectual property, which, the prevailing thought was, would be put seriously at risk by going digital. That’s changing fast.

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Working at a small consulting firm a few years back, I was amazed to find that no one at the company was permitted to bring work home. You could stay as long as you wanted at the office, but no working on company material at home on the weekend — ever. This was also a firm that still depended primarily on paper-based communications, and forbade the use of flash drives. These stipulations were in place to try to preserve the company’s intellectual property, which, the prevailing thought was, would be put seriously at risk by going digital.

These kinds of precautions aren’t uncommon, and it’s easy to see why firms put them in place. A recent study found 52 percent of workers surveyed would access company networks insecurely while working remotely, even though 90 percent of those polled said they were aware that doing so was unwise and represented a security risk. However, companies that have these kind of barriers to distributed and remote work in order to try to “lock down” and protect their IP risk being left behind in a changing world.

The commonly accepted definition of what can and can’t be “owned” when it comes to digital information is rapidly evolving, and it will only continue to do so in our lifetime. This change in the way people perceive digital ownership may have originally been spurred on by the consumer sector (people now tend to pay for access to digital media, for example, instead of buying physical goods, like CDs), but just as consumer hardware and software is flooding the enterprise, a looser definition of digital and intellectual property is also in the process of catching on with employees and certain companies.

Consider Mark Zuckerberg’s statement in The Social Network that if the Winklevoss twins could’ve created Facebook, they would have. It’s an attitude I hear a lot from startup founders, which basically amounts to a belief that ideas are only worthwhile if acted upon, and that any claims to “ownership” not backed up by action are of little consequence, and it’s an attitude that seems to be gaining traction.

Distributed work is haunted by the idea that once information leaves the physical office, it becomes incredibly vulnerable to theft by an enemy perceived to be constantly at the gates. However, in most cases, people just aren’t that interested in a company’s information to begin with (companies tend to overestimate the value of their IP), and as the core concept of what can and can’t be owned in the digital world is inexorably changing, companies that try to resist the shift and lock down their IP will get overtaken by others that are enthusiastically embracing distributed work.

Of course, information has value, and the idea of digital ownership isn’t without its practical uses. But even though it may seem difficult to imagine now, most industries will eventually end up using technologies that may at one time have been considered “risky,” including ones that foster remote work and the use of distributed teams. Fifteen years ago, the idea of an employee accessing a workplace network from home and moving files back and forth using their own laptop, phone or tablet would’ve seemed inconceivable, but we got here. As we continue to negotiate the tricky waters of digital ownership, the safe bet to make is that policies surrounding company IP will relax,  and to plan accordingly.

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