What is the difference between an Employee Proprietary Information Agreement and a Confidentiality and Inventions Assignment Agreement?

Trick question.  They are the same thing.  These agreements that protect the companies confidential information and ownership of intellectual property go by several names.  Here are a few names for the same type of agreement:

  • Employee Confidentiality and Inventions Assignment Agreement
  • Proprietary Information Agreement
  • Employee Intellectual Property Assignment Agreement
  • Protection of Company Interests Agreement.

Startup companies should require all employees and contractors to sign a proprietary information agreement that, at a minimum:

  • puts the worker under covenant to keep the employer’s proprietary information confidential and use it only in furtherance of the company’s interests
  • provides that all intellectual property created during the employment is “work-for-hire”
  • assigns to the company all inventions created under the employment relationship.

Other provisions frequently found in worker proprietary information agreements include

  •  a covenant not to solicit company employees and consultants upon termination,
  • recitation of the at-will nature of the relationship,
  • a covenant to return of company materials upon termination,  
  • recitation of company ownership of (and lack of privacy) in emails and other digital communications,

Problems with the Preexisting Inventions List

Most of these agreements have a provision that requires the worker to list personal inventions that shouldn’t come within the scope of the assignment of inventions.  Some of these agreements overreach, in my view, and put an unfair burden on the employee to list all of their inventions, even if they were before the employment with the current employer or unrelated to the current employer’s business.   There is inevitable tension here, because many workers do in fact pick up ideas from the work they are doing. 

Here are three examples:

Example A:  I represent that all matters which I have created or otherwise developed prior to my Relationship with the Company or my signing this Agreement, which may lawfully be excluded from my obligations to the Company under this Agreement, are listed in Schedule 2(a) attached hereto.  If no items are listed in Schedule 2(a), I represent that there are no such matters to be excluded.

Example B:  I am not obligated to assign any Company Invention that qualifies fully under the provisions of the Revised Code of Washington Section 49.44.140 (“RCW 49.44.140”), which is included below.  In addition, I will advise the Company promptly in writing of any Inventions that I believe meet the criteria in RCW 49.44.140 and are not otherwise disclosed on Exhibit A.

Example C: I have attached hereto, as Exhibit A, a complete list describing with particularity all Inventions (as defined below) that, as of the Effective Date, belong solely to me or belong to me jointly with others, and that relate in any way to any of the Company’s proposed businesses, products or research and development, and which are not assigned to the Company hereunder; or, if no such list is attached, I represent that there are no such Inventions at the time of signing this Agreement.

All of these examples have been used by major law firms.  Examples A and B, while protective of the Company, overreach in my view.  Example A probably isn’t enforceable.  It overreaches because everything the Employee has ever created in the past — everything the employee has written, illustrated, coded, snapped with a camera – everything would have to be listed to be eligible to be excluded.  Clearly the employee is not going to list everything they have created in the past, so Example A requires the employee to make a false representation: “If no items are listed in Schedule 2(a), I represent that there are no such matters to be excluded.”

Example B is better, but still problematic.  (For reference see RCW 49.44.140 below.)  Example B has the employee promising to list any Inventions that meet the criteria for exclusion.  All of the employee’s writings, drawings, photos, etc.  not related to the Company’s business and created on the employees own time fit the exception.  (Inventions is always defined broadly to pick up any copyrightable work.)  So Example B has the employee promising to do something they will not realistically do.

Example C is best in my view.  It is fair to the employee and sufficiently protective of the Company.  It requires the employee to list only creative works that related to the Company’s business, products or research.  It’s fair to ask the employee to identify those works and to represent that there are none if not listed. 

Both Companies offering up these documents and employees asked to sign them should review the pre-existing inventions listing requirement carefully for fairness and the employee’s realistic ability to do what is asked or required.

RCW 49.44.140 of the Revised Code of Washington is as follows:

(1)        A provision in an employment agreement which provides that an employee shall assign or offer to assign any of the employee’s rights in an invention to the employer does not apply to an invention for which no equipment, supplies, facilities, or trade secret information of the employer was used and which was developed entirely on the employee’s own time, unless (a) the invention relates (i) directly to the business of the employer, or (ii) to the employer’s actual or demonstrably anticipated research or development, or (b) the invention results from any work performed by the employee for the employer. Any provision which purports to apply to such an invention is to that extent against the public policy of this state and is to that extent void and unenforceable.

(2)        An employer shall not require a provision made void and unenforceable by subsection (1) of this section as a condition of employment or continuing employment.

(3)        If an employment agreement entered into after September 1, 1979, contains a provision requiring the employee to assign any of the employee’s rights in any invention to the employer, the employer must also, at the time the agreement is made, provide a written notification to the employee that the agreement does not apply to an invention for which no equipment, supplies, facility, or trade secret information of the employer was used and which was developed entirely on the employee’s own time, unless (a) the invention relates (i) directly to the business of the employer, or (ii) to the employer’s actual or demonstrably anticipated research or development, or (b) the invention results from any work performed by the employee for the employer.

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