I begin a new teaching term next week and that means two sessions with my MBA students, setting out the basics of IP law, before we delve into the challenges of the IP-managerial interface. I have been teaching IP for a long time and that should mean that there is very little angst connected with this part of the course. Sadly--au contraire! There is one segment of the presentation--trade secrets--that I always approach with the "fear and trembling" usually associated with more existential issues.
Put briefly, at some time during the treatment of trade secrets there is always at least one thoughtful, attentive student who asks the ultimate question--"So why do we need trade secret protection as a separate and distinct right? Surely it can be subsumed into other rights--such as contract and tort--that handle the subject matter." Over the years, I have worked up an answer that seeks to point the advantages of having a separately protectable right for valuable secrets. I was recently pleased to find that my notions about trade secrets were supported as part of a much wider-ranging article by the distinguished IP scholar Mark Lemley, in his most interesting article, "The Surprising Virtues of Treating Trade Secrets as IP Rights", Stanford Law Review, vol. 61, Nov. 2008.
From time to time on this blog I will consider various aspects of Lemley's analysis, because I am firm believer that trade secrets should be viewed more centrally as part of anyone's bundle of IP rights. In this blog post, I want to consider one aspect that has practical as well as doctrinal significance, namely, whether one can contract around trade secrets law (similar, e.g., to the question that arises under copyright law whether one cannot contract away the right to reverse engineer).
Thus Lemley writes:
"In trade secret law, [the question] comes up in three significant contexts: efforts to contract around the requirement of secrecy itself, whether in business disputes or in restrictive employment covenants, efforts to ban reverse engineering by contract, and the question of whether a confidential relationship can be implied absent a contract" (footnotes omitted.)The rationale for not allowing one to contract away a trade secret right is stated in a footnote to Lemley's article, where James Pooley argues as follows:
"The law relating to trade secrets reflects a balance of public and private interests in the encouragement of innovation, the preservation of ethics and the maintenance of a free marketplace of ideas and movements of labor. The balance should not be upset in any given transaction by private understandings between the parties."Lemley is a bit more circumspect, stating that "... my inclination is to prevent parties from opting out of particular rules of trade secret law, at least to the extent they rely on trade secret rather than contract remedies."
Sadly, there does not seem to a dispositive answer to this question. In my view, the issue of whether one can contract around trade secrets is a "big thing". I encounter one or another of the three scenarios described by Lemley on a frequent basis and I am uncertain about what to advise if the client asks about the ultimate enforceability of the "contract around" provision. The underlying difficulty is always the same--if there is a broad right to "contract around" the trade secret right, why exactly should trade secrtes be placed in same pantheon as patents, copyright and trade marks"? And while I am still stammering to give a cogent answer on that question, there then follows the ultimate query--"If so why should we be mentioning trade secrets in the same breath?"
I have less than a week to prepare myself for this year's inevitable bout with uncertainty about the answers to these questions. Sharon Sandeen has characterized trade secrets as "the Cinderella of intellectual property law". I am not sure, however, that discussing trade secrets with challenging MBA students is exactly "the ball" that Sandeen has in mind. Any advice will be welcome.