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How to Word an Enforceable Provision: Invention Assignment Agreements and Confidentiality Agreements
Some of the most valuable assets a company can own are its trade secrets, patents, and inventions. Losing control of these assets can be very costly, so protection is a must.
To protect their intellectual property, companies often include clauses and provisions regarding trade secrets and inventions. Confidentiality agreements and nondisclosure agreements stop employees from sharing trade secrets and sensitive information. Assignment of Inventions clauses ensure that relevant inventions made by employees during their time at the company are assigned to the company. Trailer Clauses do the same thing but cover a period after the employee leaves the company’s employment.
For businesses in South Carolina with sensitive information, trade secrets, and other intellectual property to protect, it’s important to understand that having such clauses and agreements with your employees isn’t enough. They must be worded precisely in order to be enforceable by a South Carolina court.
A case in point, decided by the South Carolina Supreme Court in 2012, gives a real-life example of what happens when these types of agreements come under the scrutiny of the state’s highest court.
Background to the Milliken & Company v. Morin case
Brian Morin is a research physicist who started working for Milliken, an industrial chemical and textile producer, in April 1995. While employed, he began working on a new multifilament fiber, but Milliken did not agree to support its research and development. Morin resigned from Milliken in May 2004 and filed for a patent for the new fiber which he assigned to Innegrity, a company he founded the same week he quit Milliken.
Milliken found out about what Morin was doing and demanded he stop working with the fiber and furthermore said that under an employment agreement Morin had signed, the invention rightfully belonged to Milliken.
Eventually, Milliken and Morin’s case ended up in the South Carolina Supreme Court. The issue of interest to us here is Morin’s argument that the agreement he signed was overbroad and therefore unenforceable. He argued that the inventions assignment provision and confidentiality clause in his agreement should be scrutinized and enforced to the same standard of covenants not to compete.
The Supreme Court disagreed.
Why are Covenants Not to Compete Disfavored in South Carolina?
As we’ve discussed in previous blogs (here, here and here), South Carolina courts tend to side with the employee rather than the employer when it comes to covenants not to compete. The South Carolina Supreme Court has stated that “restrictive covenants not to compete are generally disfavored and will be strictly construed against the employer” and that they must also be reasonably limited in time and geographical scope. (See Rental Uniform Service of Florence, Inc. v. Dudley, 1983)
This is a high standard to hold all provisions to. However, it’s important to understand why these agreements are often found unenforceable by South Carolina courts. It’s because when they are overly broad and badly worded, they violate public policy by hampering an individual’s ability to make a living in their profession.
The same is not true about the provisions at hand, which do not hamper Morin’s ability to make a living within his profession. The Supreme Court found the inventions assignment agreement and the confidentiality agreement to be clear, reasonable, and enforceable. That’s why it upheld the Court of Appeals’ decision and decided against Morin.
What Employers Need to Know About Drafting These Provisions
While this South Carolina Supreme Court decision is good news for employers in this state, it’s important to understand that the Court upheld the enforceability of reasonable provisions. A reasonable provision is one that protects legitimate business interests yet does not violate public policy by hampering an individual from making a living in their profession.
In this particular case, the exact wording of the relevant parts of the employment agreement signed by Morin was important to the Court. Let’s look at the specific language used and upheld by the Court to understand what businesses can do when wording their own provisions in the future.
- Clear Definitions
For both the confidentiality clause and the invention assignment agreement, the Court’s opinion stressed that the definitions were extremely clear. Here they are, as presented in the opinion.
Milliken’s definition of confidential information contains five elements, all of which must be met for information to be considered confidential. The Court wrote “It does not take much elaboration to see that rather than covering general skills and knowledge, it encompasses only important information […]” As defined by Milliken in the agreement, confidential information is:
- Competitively sensitive information
- Of importance to and
- Kept in confidence by Milliken,
- Which becomes known to the employee through his employment with Milliken, and
- Which is not a trade secret.
Regarding the invention assignment agreement, the Court notes that at first Milliken defines inventions broadly, then provides the following broad exception to that definition:
“for which no equipment, supplies, facility or proprietary information of Milliken was used and
Which was developed entirely on your own time, and
- Which does not relate
- Directly to the business of Milliken or
- To Milliken’s actual or demonstrably anticipated research or development, or
- Which does not result from any work performed by you for Milliken.”
Both of these provisions had clear definitions that protected Milliken’s interests without limiting Morin’s ability to find employment.
- Reasonable Time Limitations
The Court stated that the confidentiality agreement was “reasonably limited” to “only” three years and it called the one-year restriction attached to this provision “eminently reasonable.”
Businesses should be conservative, not greedy, when attaching time limitations to any and all provisions.
- Reasonable Geography Limitations
Although not discussed in this decision, geographical limitations on such provisions are also important. The Court of Appeals decision in this case cited a previous South Carolina Supreme Court decision which found “geographic restriction is generally reasonable if the area covered by the restraint is limited to the territory in which the employee was able, during the term of his employment, to establish contact with his employer’s customers.”
For companies that do business with customers across the country and across the globe, this means that a provision unlimited in territory may not be considered unreasonable if the company actually does do business all over. For companies that do business solely in South Carolina, it would be unreasonable to have a provision unlimited in territory.
Employers should err on the side of being conservative when it comes to limitations in geography.
Get Help with Business Contracts, Employment Agreements, and More
As you can see, the wording in an employment agreement or provision can make the difference between being enforceable and unenforceable here in South Carolina’s courts. If you have business interests to protect, you should be working with an experienced attorney.
Gem McDowell is a business attorney with over 25 years of experience solving legal problems and helping businesses protect their interests. For advice and help with your business legal matter, contact Gem McDowell Law Group in Mt. Pleasant, SC today at 843-284-1021.