Although one would not expect to get insights on protecting confidential information from a prime time comedy, last Thursday night’s episode of NBC's The Office provided an amusing illustration of the importance of a company not giving away sensitive material. The episode involves two employees of the fictional paper company Dunder Mifflin – Michael Scott and Dwight Schrute – being tasked by their company’s CFO to learn about a small competitor – Prince Paper – that is beating Dunder Mifflin in a certain geographic area. Scott and Schrute pose as a potential client and a potential new employee, respectively, and go to Prince Paper’s office to ask questions about the company. Prince Paper’s principal discloses the number of his company’s customers. He goes as far as to provide a customer list to Scott. His wife also permits Scott to take a picture of her with a map of Prince Paper’s customers in the background.
(The relevant scenes take place at 6:00, 8:00, 10:15, and 12:10 of the video.)
The point of the episode is to show the ham-handed Scott and Schrute taking advantage of an unsuspecting competitor and then fighting over what to do with the information. That said, the episode does illustrate the pitfalls of a company not doing enough to protect its key information. Employers are often wary of the dangers of a disgruntled employee e-mailing a customer list to a personal e-mail account before resigning, but they forget the dangers that can come from disclosing information to seemingly innocuous customers and potential hires. In this case, Prince Paper would have a hard time showing that its customer list is a trade secret if it had to acknowledge that it previously gave the list away to a person posing as a potential customer. This is especially true when that person is the bumbling Michael Scott.