I recently attended a conference of senior corporate patent counsel. Much of the discussion focused on cost savings in a tight economy. In patent prosecution, this process has been going on for years by limiting prosecution fees and filing abroad only on important cases. Part of the discussion focused on short-term mechanisms to push off cost – such as using provisional and timing PCT applications.
New Focus on Trade Secrets: One alternative suggested is increased reliance on trade secret. Trade secrets are relatively much cheaper than patents. Trade secret protection is automatic so long as sufficient steps are taken to keep the secret and the secret is economically valuable. Patent filings are dropping and many companies are taking a harder look at trade secret law as a mechanism to at least temporarily protect rights.
The public benefit of public disclosure is often touted when comparing patents with trade secrets. Patents require public disclosure with the aim of promoting the flow of ideas and information. Trade secret laws prohibit disclosure.
The private benefit of private disclosure: Anyone who has practiced trade secret law intuitively knows that patents naturally create additional information benefits that I call “private disclosure.” I note two of these benefits below: The benefit of defining rights
Value of Defining Rights: Despite serious problems with claim scope unpredictability, patents do a good job of explicitly stating the rights being claimed. Defined rights can be sold, traded, and accounted-for both externally and within the company. And, patent law facilitates a process for looking at by-product innovations to consider whether they should be pursued. These benefits flow from Coase’s work on property rights. Although trade secrets can also be well defined, trade secret law does not require explicit pre-identification nor does it provide such a mechanism. Rather, in most cases, a company’s knowledge about its own trade secret information is left nebulous and largely undefined.
Employee Relations: The patent system also creates a nice mechanism for managing employee relations. Inventors typically have a duty to assign all their work-related inventions to their employer. However, that duty is crystalized when the inventor files an oath and an assignment of rights. Often, the inventor gets a cash bonus at that point as well. Although the inventor already had a duty to assign, the actual assignment is important psychologically – to ensure that all the parties agree who owns what. Typical trade secret practice does not involve any explicit acknowledgment of the trade secret nature of particular innovations and information. Some companies attempt an end-of-employment statement that This is important because most trade-secret practice involves former employees using inside knowledge to benefit a competitor.
Best Practices for Trade Secret Law: Most companies have invention disclosure programs, but few of them link those disclosures to trade secret practice. Notably, when a company decides not to pursue patent protection, a process of assignment (and possible small bonus) should still be followed to ensure that the creator understands that the innovation belongs to the company and is not being given to the public. Likewise, companies may consider implementing broader innovation identification programs that encompass both patentable inventions and trade secret information.
- One query: In the US, trade secret law is state specific – although most jurisdictions follow the Uniform Trade Secret Act. Do any jurisdictions have a “working” requirement for trade secret? Take the situation where a company employee creates a new product, but the company decides not to pursue the product and it just sits in the file cabinet?
- China: In the US, the commercialization of trade secrets will block the user from later obtaining a patent on the otherwise secret information. A Foley & Lardner report by Sharon Barner and Hal Wegner indicates that under Chinese law, there commercialized trade secrets may still be patented. Is this true in other FTF countries?