In a previous post we discussed a few basic principles of confidentiality agreements (also known as non-disclosure agreements or NDAs). That post discussed the basic of these agreements and the important principles of restrictive covenants and trade secrets. Left unanswered was the critical question: How long can, or should, a confidentiality obligation last?
Reasonable Periods of Confidentiality
Now let’s get back to the question of a reasonable amount of time for confidentiality obligations to last with respect to CBI that does not meet the definition of a trade secret. As discussed above, a factor is the nature of the CBI owners legitimate business interests that are protected by the agreement. An example of a legitimate business interest of the owner is to protect the confidentiality its cost of goods sold or COGS. Disclosure of that information to competitors may give them an unfair advantage when bidding for the business of new customers. But how long does that legitimate business interest last? That depends on the nature of the goods and the nature of the industry. In some industries, costs are sufficiently stable that knowledge of a company’s COGS from five years ago enables a competitor to make an accurate estimate of the company’s COGS today, and a court might consider a confidentiality period of five years to be very reasonable. In other industries, costs change much more quickly, and a court might find that a confidentiality period of five years is unreasonable and rule that the agreement is unenforceable — unless the COGS also meets the definition of a trade secret.
Here’s where things get more complicated because the definitions of CBI in most confidentiality agreements are not identical to the definition of a trade secret. In most cases, all trade secrets are also CBI, but not all CBI qualifies as a trade secret. So what to do?
One one might consider writing a confidentiality agreement that, for CBI that qualifies as a trade secret, lasts for as long as that is true and, for all other CBI, lasts for only, say, three years. And one can certainly write a contract with precisely that provision, but it will pose a dilemma for the recipient: The recipient will probably not be able to tell the difference between CBI that qualifies as a trade secret and CBI that does not. Here are some possible ways to resolve that dilemma.
- The recipient may decide to simply live with the dilemma and assume that all CBI must be protected essentially forever. Some recipients find that acceptable.
- The owner of the CBI may accept a time limitation for all CBI, including CBI that qualifies as a trade secret. However, that may create other problems for the CBI owner. Note the second part of the definition of a trade secret — it must be subject to reasonable precautions to protect its secrecy. Is it a reasonable precaution to disclose information under a confidentiality agreement that permits the disclosure or use of the information after a certain period of time? Some courts say no, with the result that the information loses its status as a trade secret.
- The confidentiality agreement may impose a limit that applies to ALL CBI, but only if, and for as long as, the CBI qualifies as a trade secret. In that case, the owner accepts the possibility that some CBI may have no protection at all because it never qualifies as a trade secret. For some owners in some situations, that is a more acceptable risk than the possibility of having its CBI lose status as a trade secret.
In short, there is no single solution that works in every case. Each situation must be negotiated individually, with the interests of both sides of the agreement taken into account.
If you would need advice on confidentiality agreements or you would like to have us review the form your company uses, please feel free to contact us.