Problems with Nondisclosure Agreements: Lack of Subject Matter Limits

Can you send me a form Nondislcosure Agreement (NDA)? Lawyers get this question often. But, ideally you don’t want a form NDA, you want one or more NDAs tailored to the situations where they will be used.

People often sign NDAs without thinking too much about them. But not all NDAs are the same. And there are situations where an NDA can come back to bite you in ways you might not expect. Let’s look at the subject matter scope of an NDA.

Many form NDAs will have very broad definitions of what is considered confidential information that should not be disclosed. You might see something like:

Confidential Information shall mean any data or information that is competitively sensitive material and not generally known to the public, including, but not limited to, information  relating to any of the following: product development, inventions, product plans, marketing strategies, documentation, reports, data, database, customer lists, customer relationships, customer profiles, business plans and results relating to past, present or future business activities.

This provision provides no limitation on the subject matter that is confidential. That is, it does not limit the confidentiality obligations to a particular technical field or product.

The lack of a subject matter limitation could be a problem if the other party to the NDA starts disclosing confidential information to you in a field that you have an interest in entering. If so, that party might effectively block you from entering a given field merely by disclosing confidential information directed to that field or product. This problem can be avoided by providing field or product subject matter limitations in the NDA.

Take, for example, the case of ConFold Pacific, Inc. v. Polaris Industries, 433 F.3d 952 (7th Cir. 2006). Polaris hired Confold to conduct a reverse logistics analysis of Polaris’ shipping needs to determine how best to deal with goods returned by customers. This was conducted under an agreement titled “Mutual Non-Disclosure Agreement–Logistics Consulting Version.”

After the agreement was signed Polaris requested proposals, from Confold and 8 other firms, for designs of returnable shipping containers to replace its disposable shipping containers. Polaris did not accept any of the proposals. But a few years later Polaris designed a returnable container and began having it manufactured by another firm.

ConFold sued Polaris for breach of the NDA alleging that Polaris’s returnable container was based on the container that ConFold submitted. But the court found that, among other things, (1) the NDA title suggested that the scope of the NDA was confined to reverse logistics analysis, and (2) that the limiting language of the NDA of “ConFold has information relating to its proprietary software systems, documentation, and related consulting services which it considers to be proprietary,” and “software systems, documentation, and related consulting services” referred to the reverse logistics analysis itself. The court concluded that the language of the NDA limited the confidential subject matter to the reverse logistics consulting. And, the returnable shipping container design was outside of that scope.

Further, evidence showed that ConFold had a form NDA “specific for design” but it did not ask Polaris to sign it.

If Polaris signed an NDA without any subject matter limits, it could have been on the hook to ConFold for the returnable shipping container design. This probably was not what Polaris intended when it hired ConFold for the reverse logistics consulting.

Providing subject matter limits in an NDA is an important step to prevent the NDA from covering subjects that you didn’t intended to cover and from blocking your future product development or business efforts.

What is a NDA (NonDisclosure Agreement)?

NondisclosureAgreement2A NonDisclosure Agreement (NDA) or Confidentiality Agreement is a written agreement where one or more parties agree to keep information that is disclosed confidential. Generally a NDA will be used when one party wants to disclose confidential information to a second party. Occasionally, a mutual NDA will be needed if both parties intend to disclose confidential information to each other.

Patent Law and Disclosures
Prior to the enactment of the America Invents Act (AIA), the United States provided a one year grace period which requires that within one year after certain activities, such as a public disclosure of the invention, a patent application must be filed or the inventor is prohibited from filing a patent application. The AIA made changes to the law which raised doubts about how and under what circumstances the one year grace period applies. The new AIA provisions have not yet be interpreted been a court.

Therefore, it is now best to file a patent application in the U.S. before any non-confidential disclosure. Further, most foreign countries do not provide a grace period and require a patent application to be filed before any public disclosure. Therefore, in order to best protect your ability to seek patent protection, it is a best practice to have a NDA signed by any person or party that you intend to disclose your invention to before a patent application is filed. However, if a disclosure has been made without an NDA, check with a patent attorney, as you still may have an option to file a patent application.

Examples Scenarios
While the safest approach is to have a patent application filed at the earliest time before any disclosure, there may be scenarios where you believe it is necessary to disclose an invention or other confidential information to a third party before a patent application is filed. For example, it may be necessary to engage an engineer to assist in creating CAD drawings of your invention. Further, it may be necessary or desirable to work with a manufacturer or designer to develop a prototype of the invention before filing a patent application. The inventor may also need to disclose the information to bankers, venture capitalist, other financial backers, or potential business partners in order to move forward with the inventors business or to otherwise exploit the invention. In these and other scenarios it is important that the inventor or invention owner obtain a signed NDA from the party that is to receive confidential information about the invention so that the disclosure does not negatively impact your ability to seek patent protection.

NDA Provisions
A NDA generally has several components. A NDA will identify the parties to the agreement. It will identify the information that the disclosing party(ies) deem confidential. It will identify information that will not be considered confidential, if any. It will require that the receiving party maintain the information disclosed by the disclosing party in confidence and to take reasonable steps to ensure that the information is not disclosed. Often the NDA provides provisions that the information can used for (1) specific purpose, such as for the purpose of evaluating potential business and/or investment relationships with the Disclosing party or (2) more generally, only for the sole and exclusive benefit of the Disclosing Party.

Some NDAs have a specific time frame where the NDA is effective, such as for 3 years. Other NDAs provide a time frame that extents indefinitely.

Trustworthy Receiving Parties
NDAs are not self-enforcing. Therefore, you should endeavour to disclose confidential information only to those that are trustworthy. If the party that you are disclosing to breaches the NDA, you will be forced to hire a lawyer and take action against that person. This can be disruptive and time consuming. Therefore, it is generally worth investigating the trustworthiness of anyone you will be disclosing confidential information to under an NDA.

Having a written NDA signed is an important first step before disclosing confidential information to others before a patent application is filed.

Photo credit to flickr user DaveBleasdale under this creative commons license.

Protecting Unpatentable Inventions

Not every invention is patentable. Yet, inventors and companies may decide to proceed to market with an unpatentable products or services. This article will explore other intellectual property protection options that exist beyond patents.

Build a Brand
In many cases customers purchase a product or service because it is provided under a recognized brand name. This may be true regardless of whether the product or services is patented. Therefore you may decide to choose a strong trademark for the product or service. Then you can market that trademark so that customers associate that trademark with the type of product or service you are selling. The goal is to build a brand so that consumers will seek out that brand when purchasing your goods or services. In this way customers will choose your brand of product, even if there are competitors selling the same or similar products/services.

The brand can be built around a product/service name or around a company name or both. If the names used in your branding are unique (they should be), then you can seek to obtain a federal trademark registration which will provide additional benefits. The trademark rights built around your product or service will not prevent competitors from copying the product or service. Yet it will prevent them from using your trademark or a similar mark. The strategy of building a brand is designed to draw customers to your brand regardless of the competition.

It may be possible to protect your invention under copyright law. However, copyright protects the expression of an idea but not the idea itself. Therefore if you write software creating a new type of application, copyright protection will protect you from direct copying of the software. But it cannot prevent others from copying the idea and writing their own implementation of that idea. The copyright protection extends somewhat beyond identical copying, but the point is that copyright provides narrow protection of the expression of an idea as compared to patents.

Trade Secret
When an invention cannot be patented, it might be protectable as a trade secret. Not all inventions are capable of being protected as a trade secret. A trade secret may generally be understood as something that has economic value, is not generally known, and is subject to efforts to maintain it as a secret. Therefore, if the invention is embodied in a product that is distributed to the purchasing public and whom can reverse engineer or discover the invention by inspecting the product, then it is unlikely that the invention can be protected by a trade secret. However, if the invention is capable of being maintained in secrecy, then trade secret protection might be relied on.

It is possible to draft a contract that requires the party receiving the invention to keep it confidential and not disclose it to others (similar to an NDA). This is more likely to occur with business to business transactions where the sale involves significant money or resources to execute or implement. The other party would need to agree to such a confidentiality term.

This does not work with consumer goods because the product often needs to be marketed broadly and publicly where the invention details may be disclosed.

There are a number of alternative approaches to protection when your invention is not patentable. While each alternative is not a complete substitute, the options above may provide some protection when proceeding with a product or service in the absence of a patent, depending on the circumstance.

Problems with Requiring an NDA Before Pitching Your Invention

At the outset of product / service development there is often a tension between the desire to keep the invention confidential and the desire to know whether there will be sufficient interest in the invention from customers or those who might make and sell it to customers. Therefore the issue arises as to how to protect an invention early in the product development, partnering, or sale process.

There are three ways of proceeding: (1) first file a patent application before any disclosures to third parties, (2) disclose to a third party only after obtaining a signed nondisclosure agreement (NDA), (3) disclose without an NDA or application filed and hope for the best. The first is the most preferred and the last approach is not recommended.

Difficulties with NDAs Before Sales Pitch
Disclosure of an idea to another party that is under a written obligation (e.g. NDA) to maintain that idea in secret, generally will not be considered a public disclosure that would negatively impact your patent rights. However, if you are attempting to approach a company to (1) convince them to make and sell your product and give you a royalty or (2) to sell a product you will make, it may be very difficult to get them to sign an NDA or other legal agreement before you tell them anything about your invention.

This is true because, unlike when you are approaching an engineering firm, here you are not offering to pay the other party any money. You are essentially saying, “I have a great product or service that will make you money, but before I tell you anything about it, I need you to sign this legal agreement.” This is a difficult selling approach.

If they sign that agreement and then find out that your product is very similar to something they are already working on this creates a problem because you may assert that when they come out with that product that they copied your invention. Or if they just don’t like the idea, they are still encumbered by the NDA for any further developments. It would seem that there’s little incentive for them to sign an NDA with you, especially if they receive many similar solicitations from other inventors or companies. Therefore, if your sales pitch starts by requiring the recipient to sign a legal agreement before further discussions, you may not have very many takers.

If you do get the other party to sign an NDA, you should know that NDA’s are not self enforcing. Therefore, if the other party breaches the NDA it will be necessary for you to spend money in the form of legal fees to enforce the agreement or to recover damages. As such, you should investigate the trustworthiness of the other party.

Patent Application Filed First
The first option, having a patent application filed first, is the safest approach. Patent law encourages early filing of patent applications. This assumes that the invention is develop sufficiently to support a patent application filing. See this article on whether your product needs further development before filing a patent application.

If your product needs further development and such development requires the assistance of outside engineers or product developers, then you should use a written nondisclosure agreement when engaging such outsiders to help develop the invention. Also, you should ensure that the terms of any engagement with such providers specifies that you will own any developments and inventions that they might create under the engagement. Outside engineers and product developers are generally more willing to sign an NDA, because you are usually paying them money in return for their services. Further, their business revolves around developing products and they should be used to signing such agreements.

Regarding marketing, if a patent application, preferably one drafted by a patent attorney, is filed that adequately covers your invention then from a patent perspective, you are no longer required to keep your idea secret. You may instead may go exploit your idea publicly. In fact, as it can take years to obtain a patent, inventions are usually commercialized and marketed after a patent application is filed but before a patent is granted.

It can be difficult to engage in a sales approach with another when your first request is to sign a legal agreement before providing information. Having a patent application filed before making a sales pitch is generally the best approach. Service providers, such as engineers and developers, are generally more likely to sign an NDA as they are being paid for their work and they may regularly assist in invention development.