IP Essentials: Trade Secrets

IP Essentials: Trade Secrets is one in a series. The series is designed as a toolkit for entrepreneurs, innovators, and business owners to explore complex intellectual property law topics in an easily digestible format.

IP ESSENTIALS A Toolkit for Entrepreneurs, Innovators, and Business Owners


Q What makes something a trade secret? A The information has independent economic value, actual or potential, and it is not readily known to, and not being readily ascertainable by proper means by, other persons who can obtain economic value from its disclosure or use. Q In which cases may trade secret protection be beneficial? A This varies on a case-by case basis, but trade secrets may generally be beneficial in the following circumstances: • the subject matter of the trade secret cannot be protected by patents, copyrights, and/or trademarks; • the time frame that the secrets may have value is either shorter than the time required to obtain a patent or longer than the 20 years of protection available under patent law; • the likelihood is high that the information can be kept secret; • the subject matter is not readily ascertainable; • the secret is related to a manufacturing process. Q Can a trade secret lose its value? A Yes. The protectability of a trade secret may easily be lost if steps are not taken to maintain proprietary information as confidential. Trade secrets require the use of “reasonable efforts” under their unique circumstances to maintain secrecy.

TRADE SECRETS Trade secrets can include any and all technical or business prprietary information that gives the holder an advantage over competitors who do not possess the information . For example, trade secrets may include technical formulas, manufacturing techniques processes, programs, business methods, customer and supplier lists, and other business information.


Q What are some reasonable procedures for protecting a trade secret? A Standard agreements and procedures include the use of confidentiality, non-competition, and non-disclosure clauses in employee, and consultant and independent contractor agreements. Exit policies should be in writing and remind departing employees of their specific confidentiality obligations. Other reasonable procedures to protect trade secrets include letters to the new employer of a departing employee, labeling documents accordingly, providing access only on a need-to-know basis, and creating an unsolicited idea policy. Q How do I formulate a trade secret protection plan? A Some considerations when developing a trade secret plan include • creating a written trade secret policy; • informing and educating employees about the plan; • identifying and restricting access to trade secrets; • maintaining computer secrecy; • eliminating all disclosure of trade secret information to the public; • using confidentiality and non-disclosure agreements when dealing with employees and third parties; and • appointing a custodian of trade secrets to monitor policy and communications.

Q Do I need to register or file my trade secret with the government for protection? A No. Unlike patents, trademarks, and copyrights, trade secrets need not, and indeed cannot, be filed or registered with any government body or agency for protection. A trade secret is protectable based on the fact that

"Unlike patents, trademarks, and copyrights, trade secrets need not, and indeed cannot, be filed or registered with any government body or agency for protection. "

it is not known to anyone who is not required to maintain it in confidence. And a trade secret remains protected as long as it remains unknown to others. Q What kind of laws protect trade secrets?

A Forty-eight states, including Massachusetts, have enacted the Uniform Trade Secrets Act (UTSA), as has the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. North Carolina has its own trade secret statute that is similar to the UTSA, while New York still applies common law. The Defend Trade Secrets Act enacted in 2016 allows an owner of a trade secret to sue in federal court when its trade secrets have been misappropriated.



How long does a trade secret last?

Q Should I worry about trade secret misappropriation?

Q Can I license/sell my trade secret? A Yes. You can freely transfer your trade secret to others in any way you choose. This is because a trade secret is viewed as a piece of property in the eyes of the law – just like patents, trademarks, and copyrights. In other words, a trade secret owner owns the rights to sell, license, lease, or otherwise transfer

A Yes. Trade secrets may give a competitor an unfair advantage or head start if the competitor improperly accesses the secret information. In most instances, this information comes from former employees including key personnel such as directors, officers, and key employees (engineers, scientists, managers, and sales professionals). Q What if my trade secret can be reverse engineered? A Trade secret law does not prevent discovery by fair and honest means in business competition. Reverse engineering must be well documented to defend against a future claim of trade secret misappropriation (likewise, for independent development). Owners of trade secrets should consider patent and/or copyright protection, or contractual prohibitions on reverse-engineering, if the information may be reversed engineered from your product or service.


Trade secrets can last as long as the information is properly maintained and protected– potentially forever.

the asset to others for commercial reasons.


This IP Essentials Topic is one of a series: IP Essentials Toolkit for Entrepreneurs, Innovators, and Business Owners

The information provided on this document does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice; instead, all information, content, and materials are for general informational purposes only. Readers should contact an attorney to obtain legal advice with respect to any particular legal matter.

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