In The Trenches
Basically, this is a contract
between two parties (you and someone else) to keep a secret. You offer
to give them information so that they
can evaluate or produce it and they
agree it's your property. There are a
lot of different types of non-disclosure agreements. I've seen some run
to three pages.
Reputable companies will always
be willing to sign a non-disclosure in
some form. Some companies have
their own version that they insist on
using. Beware of anyone who balks
at signing an agreement. Always
carefully read anything you sign.
Some unscrupulous companies may
try to take advantage of you. But,
this is rare.
This agreement protects the
companies, as well. If they are working on a similar invention, or if the
invention has already been in the
public domain, they are protected.
Some disclosures have a time limit.
Generally, this is five years. You can
search the web for typical non-disclosure statements.
If you are concerned about the
terms, have your lawyer examine the
statement. Unfortunately, access to a
lawyer is becoming just as important
to business as business cards.
After all this, suppose someone
copies your work. What do you do?
Any and all protection methods
only provide you for a basis for a
lawsuit. That means legal action.
That also means spending a lot of
money. Legal action also takes a
long time, often years. Can you
afford it? Can you afford not to? This
is a hard decision to make. Of
course, you feel angry, but don't let
anger get in the way of a good decision. Sometimes the simple
approach works. Have your lawyer
write the copier and threaten a lawsuit. Also contact distributors and tell
them about the copying. Provide
absolute proof. If you can't prove it,
you will have trouble winning a lawsuit. Also remember that need
drives product development. Often,
the same idea happens at about the
same time because of a common
need. Be objective. It's usually obvious if someone independently developed a product or just copied it.
Product competition is the American
way. Using inappropriate methods to
quash competition can get you into
The same is true if the reverse
happens — if someone tells you that
you are infringing on their rights.
React calmly. Talk to your lawyer.
Look at the financial implications.
Look at the proof. Make a decision
based on good business. Otherwise,
you may just be wasting a lot of
Forrest Mims III vs.
Way back in the 1970s Forrest
Mims III documented a way of using
an LED to respond to light. He
thought it would be a good way to
allow two-way communication over
fiber-optic lines. He submitted the
idea to Bell Labs after signing a non-disclosure agreement. Bell rejected
the idea. However, a few years later,
Bell released a "new" device that
could both emit and detect light. Mr.
Mims was upset and eventually took
Bell Labs to Federal Court. More
details are available in the April and
May 1982 issues of Popular
Electronics. Mr. Mims spent hundreds of hours researching his case
and writing briefs for his attorneys.
He had to allow his office/home to be
searched. Some of his friends and
colleagues were subpoenaed by Bell.
It was not a pleasant experience.
Nevertheless, he was able
to settle out of court and with a
check from Bell Labs. Sometimes
the little guy actually wins! But, Bell
never admitted to violating the non-disclosure agreement.
NUTS & VOLTS
There are a lot of methods you
can use to protect your idea. No
method is best and the procedure
you choose depends on your situation and product.
Any protection is a trade-off. You
have to spend time, money, or both.
Naturally, it's important to apply the
correct method, otherwise you're
just wasting time, money, or both.
Circle #80 on the Reader Service Card.