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Disclosure and confidentiality

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This section is in some sense a preliminary to Part 5: Protecting your idea . The dangers of disclosure are real, and need to be taken seriously as soon as you start thinking about your invention. But it is important to understand that protecting your idea against disclosure is not quite the same as protecting your idea against infringement.

Protecting your idea against disclosure depends largely on your own common-sense measures, which you should take from the day you first think of your idea. Protecting your idea against infringement depends largely on the correct use of formal legal procedures when the time is right to use them. This is why Parts 1-4 precede Part 5!

(An exception is Part 5 > Confidential information and non-disclosure agreements, which it may be helpful to read in conjunction with this section.)

Assessing the risk of disclosure

Disclosing an idea without adequate legal protection is always dangerous. The main risks are:

  • Someone may use knowledge of your idea for their own gain - which usually means your loss.
  • Disclosure now may prevent you from obtaining a worthwhile patent later.

In the very earliest stages of an idea, the problem for many inventors is twofold:

  • It is usually inadvisable to apply too early for a patent. The timing of a patent application can be critical - see Part 5 > The patenting process.
  • Yet in order to make progress with an invention, some disclosure may be unavoidable.

How then should you protect your idea in the early stages of its development?

Disclosure risks fall broadly into two categories:

  • Disclosure to individuals during private meetings
    This type of risk is controllable as long as you take a few basic precautions, detailed below.
  • Public disclosure
    The dangers here are less obvious. Particularly problematic areas are:
    • Media publicity and competitions. Both may be useful after you have legally protected your idea but definitely not before it.
    • Inventions which originate as student projects - especially if there is a requirement to exhibit or publish your work. Teaching staff often do not understand that any form of public display of an idea legally constitutes disclosure and can have serious consequences.

Who can you trust?

You should be safe disclosing details of your idea to people whose professions require them to observe confidence in all dealings with clients. This includes patent attorneys, other legal professionals, EPO and national IP office personnel. It should also include public servants such as business or technology advisers and funding scheme administrators.

When dealing with anyone else - companies in particular - you should disclose nothing without at least (a) a signed non-disclosure agreement (NDA) and (b) free forms of legal protection in place, such as copyright or unregistered design right (detailed in Part 5 ).

Disclosure strategy

You should try to avoid:

  • Obsessive secrecy.
  • A demand for payment before disclosing any detail of your idea.

Few people will be willing or able to help you if you use such negative tactics. Instead:

  • Before talking to companies or individuals not bound by confidentiality (either a professional code or a signed NDA), decide exactly how much you can tell them without describing the inventive parts of your idea. Revealing broadly what it is (‘It is a novel mousetrap') may be safe; revealing what makes it novel is dangerous.
  • The more you discuss the technical aspects of your idea, the greater the risk of disclosing secrets. Try instead to focus your presentation on the competitive benefits of your invention: for example, ‘It is cheaper', ‘It is more reliable', ‘It is easier to use'.
  • Be diplomatic but firm about your need to restrict disclosure. If the people you are talking to want more detail from you, insist that they sign your NDA. If they refuse to sign, walk away! Even if they do sign, disclose as little as possible.
  • Even if protected by an NDA, be very careful what you reveal to experts in your field of invention. They may need only one or two small details to guess the unique features of your invention.

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