As a small business owner, it is essential to protect sensitive information that is often referred to as trade secrets. While some well known examples of trade secrets include the formula for Coca-Cola and Google’s algorithms, any business information such as practices and techniques, processes and procedures, needs to remain confidential. In some cases, business data such as client and vendor lists may qualify as a trade secret.
Although trade secrets and other confidential business information are protected by state and federal laws, it is crucial to secure this information through the use of a confidentiality or non-disclosure agreement. In sum, this is a legal contract between two or more parties in which the party receiving the sensitive information agrees not to reveal it to any other party without prior permission or authorization.
In situations in which a business engages with vendors or enters into a strategic alliance with a similar business, a separate, stand-alone agreement can be used. Similarly, confidentiality provisions can be incorporated into an employment agreement for employees who are given access to sensitive business information. In either case, common provisions included in these agreements include:
- A definition of the confidential information (but usually not the protected information itself)
- An explanation as to why the information is being provided to the receiving party
- Terms under which the information may be disclosed to appropriate parties (such as on a need-to-know basis)
- The circumstances in which the information may or not be used
- The duration of time the information must be kept confidential
In order for a non-disclosure agreement to be enforceable, it must be deemed fair. A court typically looks to whether an agreement is overly restrictive in making a determination of fairness. If the contract is unduly burdensome to the party receiving the information, a court may find all or part of the agreement invalid. If the information has already been revealed to a third party and the agreement is deemed to be invalid, a business may be barred from recovering damages for its losses. For this reason, it is crucial to consult with an experienced business law attorney who can help to prepare a well designed non-disclosure or confidentiality agreement.