9 March 2013

Enforcing a Confidentialty Agreement in the Small Claims Track

Although business advisers, patent attorneys, solicitors and are very eager to tell you about confidentiality or non-disclosure agreements ("NDA") and, of course, to charge you for drawing one up, they are much less likely to tell you what happens if your confidante who could be your collaborator, investor, licensee or even your employee breaches the agreement.  The courts will grant injunctions to enforce obligations of confidence but these can take time to get and cost a lot of money.  The fact is that unless you can enforce it a confidentiality agreement it is not worth the paper it is typed on and the rogues are aware of that.

Until the new Patents County Court rules came into force on 1 Oct 2010 clients were advised that their own costs of applying to the Chancery interim applications judge for an interim injunction would be £15,000, that it could take months to obtain if the other side opposed the application, that they might not get their order and that they should b prepared to pay the other side's costs which could be at least as great as their own if they did not.   For most start-ups and small and medium enterprises this was intolerable and word got around that NDA and indeed intellectual property generally was about as useful as a chocolate fire guard.

I tried to solve the problem by inserting an arbitration clause into my non-disclosure agreements and by setting up an arbitration service with rules that enabled the arbitrator to grant interim injunctions that could be enforced with periodic payments like the continental astreinte.   Rule 2 (e) provided that unless the Parties agree expressly to the contrary:
"The Tribunal may compel compliance with any orders it may make under s,48 (5) of the Act by awarding periodic payments from a Party in breach to an injured Party from the date of such order until the date of compliance."
Do you know what? Not a single person made use of that service.   I don't know why.   Probably, it was because small business people rely on their solicitors and litigation solicitors, who are incredibly busy people if they are any good, tend to think in the short term and do what they did last time.

Whatever!  It became much quicker and cheaper to enforce intellectual property rights after the 1 Oct 2010 when recoverable costs were capped at £50,000, applications had to be made in writing and trials were fixed for one or at most two days.   

However, even £50,000 is a fair old sum for a start-up which is why the government launched a small claims track for IP in the Patents County Court.   I wrote about it in "How Small Businesses in Yorkshire can protect their Intellectual Property" on 14 Oct 2012 and gave a presentation on the new jurisdiction to the Sheffield inventors club on 1 Oct 2012.   The new small claims track does not cover everything - in particular, it does not cover patents and registered designs - but it does cover breach of confidence cases.   You can't get an interim injunction from the court but you can get a final one which has the advantage that you do not have to give a cross-undertaking as to damages.   And for the time being it can be quite quick with district judges giving automatic case management directions immediately after the exchange of statements of case for final hearings two months afterwards.   Costs are limited to just a few hundred pounds and then only if you need a solicitor.

I spoke about the new small claims track to the Leeds Inventors Group on the 13 Feb 2013.  There had been snow earlier that evening and the traffic was terrible which meant that I arrived very late but there was a young lady in the audience from Walker Morris called  Emily Baeza-Chavez who later contacted me to ask about the fixed fee service that my chambers run for the small claims track in Lancashire.   There we have teamed up with patent agents HutchinsonIP and JWK Solicitors to offer an all in advocacy and litigation service for £1,2000 + VAT and we are open to similar deals with solicitors and patent agents on this side of the Pennines (see "The Patents County Court Small Claims Track" IP North West 6 March 2013).

I got a chance to revisit the subject in Sheffield on 4 March 2013. The advertised speaker dropped out at the last moment because he was afflicted with one of the bugs that are doing the rounds so I stepped in with my "All you need to know about confidentiality" presentation which I had previously given to the Leeds and Manchester clubs.   When it came to enforcement I talked about the new small claims track and how it meant that an inventor could enforce an obligation of confidence or indeed most other intellectual property rights cheaply and with minimal risk.

The new small claims track court really does shift the balance of power towards the small business and private inventor and it really would be worth your while to find out more about it.   You can now contact me on 020 7404 5252 as well as on 0113 320 3232 or you can send me a message through Facebook, Linkedin, Xing or twitter or indeed my contact form.