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Education & Training

Office of Information Security

​Protecting Intellectual Property

When we think of information security, we typically think of identity theft – the theft of personal and confidential information that can be used to impersonate an individual, often for financial reasons. However, identity data is not the only type of data that needs to be protected.  Another type of information targeted by cybercriminals falls under the broad umbrella of what we refer to as intellectual property.


For the most part, the term intellectual property refers to original or proprietary ideas and creative works that the law protects from unauthorized use without the owner or author’s permission. This includes:

  • Inventions, which are protected by patent,
  • Creative works such as art, music, literature, architectural drawings, cinematography, maps, and software code, which are protected by copyright, and
  • Trade secrets such as proprietary systems, formulas, strategies, and other information that is not meant to be shared outside of an organization, which are protected by confidentiality and licensing agreements.

If you’re a student, faculty, staff, or other affiliate of Penn State, chances are some of the personal devices, University-owned devices, or University systems you access contain some type of intellectual property.

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What kinds of Intellectual Property (IP) are found at Penn State?

As a student, you may have intellectual property on your personal device and not even realize it. For example, you have a right to receive credit for your thesis, and not have someone else publish it under his or her own name. In most cases, you have a legal right to the patent or copyright on any invention, film, musical composition, computer software, or work of art you created, whether you did it on your own, or as part of a class assignment.

As a member of the faculty or staff, you may have print publications, software, films, sound recordings, computer presentations, or multi-media works that represent intellectual property. You may also have access to proprietary systems, formulas, strategies, or other information that is confidential and not meant to be shared externally.

As a member of Penn State’s research community, you may have access to inventions, databases, confidential info, computer programs, even new plant varieties developed as part of your work or someone else’s work at Penn State.

Visit the Office of Technology website to learn more about Penn State policies regarding Intellectual Property.

How can an attacker gain access to IP?

As is the case with most cybercrime, all an attacker needs is a foot in the door.

That foot in the door could be as simple as gaining access to the Penn State account of an incoming freshman. Phishing attacks are the most common way for cybercriminals to gain access to an individual’s user account. Various types of malware may be introduced by clicking a malicious link in an email or web browser.

Once they have a user’s credentials, an attacker can go on to use those credentials to gain increasingly greater access to other University systems or use their email address to contact and phish for credentials from others.

What are the potential consequences of IP theft?

As an individual, presumably you don’t wish to have a thief take credit for or profit from your work.  However, the consequences of IP theft may extend far beyond you as an individual.

In many cases, the rights to IP associated with research are subject to contractual agreements with funding partners.  Theft of intellectual property may expose the University to financial loss and legal action, damage our reputation, and threaten future opportunities for research and industry partnerships.

What can I do to protect myself and the University from IP theft?

Even if you don’t have personal IP, and don’t store University IP on your device, you can avoid being the point of entry a cyber thief uses to gain access to critical data.

To learn how, see Protect your Devices, Data, and Account.

What should I do if I believe my device or account has been used to access intellectual property?

Refer to What to do in case of a Security Incident to learn how to respond.