Confidentiality agreements (also known as non-disclosure agreements or NDAs) are common in today’s business world. They are sometimes in the form of stand-alone agreements, often used when two businesses are discussing a potential deal and at least one of them needs to disclose to the other information that is not available to the public (sometimes called confidential business information or CBI). Other times, they are embedded in agreements with a broader scope, such as employment contracts, service contracts, and contracts for the sale and purchase of a business.
The fundamental concept of a confidentiality agreement is simple. The person receiving or possessing the other person’s CBI promises not to disclose it to others and (usually) not to use the information for any purpose other than the discussions of a potential transaction or the purpose of the larger contract in which the confidential provision is embedded.
The details, however, can be tricky, and one of the thornier details is the question of how long the obligations of nondisclosure and nonuse last. Naturally, the person disclosing the CBI wants the commitments to last forever, but the person making the commitments wants them to expire at some point in time, not necessarily because he or she wants to use or disclose the information, but because he or she wants the possibility of being sued for breach to come to an end, and the sooner the better.
So how long can, or should, a confidentiality obligation last? Before answering that question, a little review of some legal principles is in order. Note that these issues are very fact-sensitive and that the law varies a fair amount from state to state. For that reason, this discussion is based on general concepts; the results may be very different in any particular case.
Confidentiality agreements are sometimes considered to be within a larger category of contracts known as restrictive covenants, i.e., agreements that in one way or another restrict commercial trade. With freedom of trade and commerce being so important to American society, restrictive covenants are not favored by public policy or the law. That doesn’t mean restrictive covenants are necessarily void or illegal, but they may be unless the restrictions are sufficiently narrow. At least some courts have held that confidentiality obligations can last for only a reasonable period of time (with an exception discussed below), and a confidentiality obligation that lasts too long may result in a court refusing to enforce the agreement.
Unfortunately, there are no clear rules to tell us what amount of time is reasonable for the duration of a confidentiality obligation. Instead, there are factors that must be weighed and balanced. Those factors include the nature of the legitimate business interests of the owner of the CBI; the effect of the restrictions on the person making the non-disclosure and non-use commitments; and the public interest.
So far we know that it may be necessary for a confidentiality obligation to expire after a reasonable period of time, and, if it doesn’t, the agreement may be unenforceable. HOWEVER, there is a major exception, and that exception is for CBI that also meets the definition of a “trade secret.”
Although “confidential business information” does not have a universal meaning,the definitions contained in most confidentiality agreements are broad enough to encompass “trade secrets,” a term defined by state statute. In Indiana, section 24-2-3-2 of the Indiana Code defines a trade secret as information that
- has independent economic value because others who could obtain economic value from the information do not have the information and cannot reasonable acquire it; and
- is the subject of reasonable efforts to maintain its secrecy.
Trade secrets are a form of intellectual property, and the trade secret statute provides protection against improper use or disclosure, in addition to the protection provided by a confidentiality agreement. Unlike most forms of intellectual property, such as patents, trade secrets never expire; they remain protected by statute for as long as the information continues to meet the definition. For that reason, some courts have ruled that the requirement for confidentiality agreements to be limited to a reasonable period of time is subject to an exception for trade secrets. To the extent a confidentiality agreement covers a trade secret, the confidentiality obligation is permitted to last forever, or at least for as long as the information continues to qualify as a trade secret under the statutory definition.
Here’s where that leaves us: With respect to trade secrets, confidentiality obligations do not need to expire. (In fact, as we’ll see later, they should not expire.) With respect to other CBI, confidentiality obligations may need to expire after a reasonable period of time to ensure enforceability. In the next article, we will consider how to deal with that bifurcation.