Trade Secrets

secrets
“Sshh” by Deborah Azzopradi

Consider trade secrets, especially when your commercially important secrets are unsuitable for patent or copyright protection.

Consider the formula for Coca-Cola and its “natural flavorings”, which dates back over 100 years.  Even if the formula could have been patented (unlikely), the patent would be long expired.  The formula might not be even eligible for copyright since it is a list.  In any event, copyrights by now would be both expired and useless. This is because copyrights for a recipe would only cover the sequence of printed words.  However as various closely guarded trade secrets, the formula remains valuable (the trademark, of course, is almost priceless).

In addition to recipes, trade secrets can include production methods, marketing methods, computer software, and the like. Pretty much any information that gives a business competitive advantage, and is not generally known, is a potential trade secret.

Trade secret protection is very narrow – unless you can prove to a court that you carefully guarded the secret, such as with NDA, and someone with access to the secret then misappropriated the secret, you are out of luck. If someone figures out the secret by other means (e.g. reverse engineering), there is no protection, even for Coca-Cola.

However, if you can convince the court that trade secret theft occurred, you can request injunctions (e.g. block disclosure), damages (your economic harm caused by the theft), and possibly even seizure of materials and/or attorney fees.

Until recently, trade secrets were only handled at the state level.  However, in May 2016, the federal Defend Trade Secrets Act of 2016 (DTSA) was signed into law.  Trade secret theft can now be handled in either state or federal court. This type of theft can now be charged under both civil and even criminal law.

So if you are doing a startup, think about which of your non-commonly known information gives you a competitive edge. Where appropriate, apply for patents and trademarks and register copyrights to prove copyright ownership.  For the rest, although some disclosure may be required for marketing and fund-raising, try to limit this disclosure, and take positive steps (e.g. restriction of access, nondisclosure agreements) to preserve not-generally-known information that is competitively important.

Non-disclosure agreements (NDA)

Non-disclosure agreements (NDA)
Confidential information

Non-disclosure agreements (NDA) can help preserve business trade secrets and other confidential information, but don’t expect your attorney to sign one.

Businesses often use non-disclosure agreements with their contractors, employees, product evaluators, and site visitors, as well as with other businesses such as suppliers, customers, potential partners, and the like.  These agreements are often required to establish diligence in preserving trade secrets.  If breached, such agreements may also be used, along with other suitable evidence, in subsequent legal action in state or federal court.

Although in some states, non-disclosure agreements are sometimes used as a backdoor form of a non-compete agreement (e.g. attempting to restrict an ex-employee’s employment elsewhere), this is not a universal practice. California, for example, disallows this sort of thing.

NDA typically include various clauses establishing:

  • Who is disclosing the information, and who is the recipient
  • The boundaries of the confidential information – what is and is not covered
  • Confidentiality obligations
  • When and/or how the agreement ends
  • Other legal provisions (beyond the scope of this blog)

Generally, NDA have carve-outs for publically available information and terminate either when information subsequently becomes available to others through no-fault of the recipient, or after a pre-negotiated number of years. Some examples can be seen here.

NDA can be particularly useful when you are working on an invention, but either have not filed a patent application yet, or else are continuing to work on improvements to the invention.  Here, if you want to work with vendors or contractors to produce components of the invention, NDA (and other IP rights agreements) can be important.

Attorneys, including myself, usually refuse to sign NDA.  Why is this?  The reason is that attorneys are already subject to strict state (and federal) attorney-client rules and regulations that require them to keep client (and potential client) secrets. In essence, by agreeing to talk to you, the attorney has already agreed to a standardized, legally enforced, type of attorney-client “NDA”.

Consider what would happen if this were not the case.  Clients would be afraid to even ask an attorney about their particular problems. Attorneys would be signing hundreds of NDA each year, each with different terms. The legal system would grind to a halt.

Professional investors (VC, Angels) usually also refuse to sign NDA.  Here, there is no duty of confidentiality.  However, the finance people control the money, see a lot of ideas they don’t fund, and usually don’t want any constraints on their future investments. This is where it is good to have your patent applications filed in advance.

Patent non-publication requests

Patent non-publication request
Keeping patent applications confidential

Non-publication requests: Patent non-publication requests can be an important part of your IP strategy. Under US law, patent applications can be filed with patent non-publication requests. When this request is made, the USPTO will hold a patent application secret (i.e. will not publish it) until when and if the patent finally issues. Otherwise, absent this request, the patent office will automatically publish the patent application 18 months after the initial filing date.

When to consider filing a non-publication request: Non-publication requests are particularly appropriate for certain types of software patent applications, such as “business methods” and related software patents. This is because the US patent law for this type of software is presently in an unsettled state, and the international acceptance of this type of patent is also more limited. By filing with a non-publication request, your disclosure remains a trade secret. If the USPTO grants you a patent that is broad enough to be worth disclosing your work; great. If not, then you can continue to elect to keep your work hidden from the public.

When filing a non-publication request may not be appropriate: If you have plans to file outside the US, then by international treaty, you must file for international patents within 12 months of your initial filing date, and also allow your initial application to be published within 18 months. Here you can either not include a non-publication request on initial filing, or alternatively send in another form rescinding your non-publication request.

Other considerations: Unless a specific reason for non-publication can be identified, I generally recommend filing using the default, “publication” mode. This is because published patent applications can be useful. They help provide published prior art to help establish priority over patent filings from competitors. Additionally, published patent applications look impressive to investors, and can help give you more credibility.

About Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area

Silicon Valley and the San Francisco bay area
Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco

Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area have a worldwide reputation for innovation. But is there any subjective evidence for this? What do the patent statistics say?

According to the USPTO statistics, at https://www.uspto.gov/web/offices/ac/ido/oeip/taf/cls_cbsa/allcbsa_gd.htm, as of 2013, Silicon Valley “classic”, characterized as San Jose, Sunnyvale, and Santa Clara (Metropolitan Statistical Area 141940), led the field in patents with 12,899 patents granted. By contrast, the remainder of the San Francisco Bay Area minus Silicon Valley, characterized as San Francisco, Oakland, and Fremont (Metropolitan Statistical Area 141860) came in a respectable second at 8,721 patents.

Here the San Jose, Sunnyvale, and Santa Clara area includes other cities such as Campbell, Cupertino, Los Altos, Los Gatos, Milpitas, Monte Sereno, Morgan Hill, Mountain View, Palo Alto, San Jose, Santa Clara, Saratoga, and Sunnyvale.

By contrast, the San Francisco, Oakland, and Fremont area includes other cities such as Belmont, Burlingame, Emeryville, Foster City, Fremont, Menlo Park, Millbrae, Newark, Oakland, Redwood City, San Bruno, San Carlos, San Francisco, San Mateo, South San Francisco, and Union City.

Combining the two, the San Francisco Bay Area as a whole dominates the rest of the country, at an impressive 21,620 patents granted in 2013. By contrast, the next runner-up, the New York-New Jersey area, comes in at 7,886 patents. The Los Angeles area is close behind at 6,271 patents, followed by the Boston area at 5,610 patents. So from a patent perspective, yes the San Francisco Bay area is, in fact, pretty unique.

Why is this area such a hotbed of innovation? One reason is California’s permissive employment laws. California labor code 2870 states that: “Any provision in an employment agreement which provides that an employee shall assign, or offer to assign, any of his or her rights in an invention to his or her employer shall not apply to an invention that the employee developed entirely on his or her own time…”  Unlike other states, that often “lock-in” or constrain an employee’s ability to leave and start new companies under vague “trade secret” theories, California’s policy encourages startup formation, and thus a vibrant economy.