For the high-growth startups we represent (and into which our venture capital clients invest), intellectual property (IP) is typically the core asset driving the company’s value. Ensuring that the company’s IP is properly owned and protected can therefore be the difference between success and failure. It is somewhat surprising then, how often founders fail to ensure that their companies do, in fact, own this critical property. Founders who eschew legal representation in favor of low-cost, automated options tend to fall into this trap most often. Most automated or semi-automated providers of startup legal documentation fail to provide even a basic IP assignment and confidentiality agreement—an essential document that all company personnel (founders included) must sign to ensure that IP is both validly assigned to the Company and protected from disclosure. When used with employees and consultants, IP assignment and confidentiality clauses are typically bundled into a single contract, often called a “Proprietary Information and Inventions Assignment Agreement” or a “Confidential Information and Inventions Assignment Agreement” (though there are many names that can be used here).
What are IP assignment agreements?
IP assignment agreements are contracts between a business and its personnel that transfer ownership of IP created by the personnel during their employment or engagement with the business. IP can include patents, trademarks, copyrights, and trade secrets. The agreement ensures that the business retains ownership of any IP created by the personnel, even after they leave the business. Even if your personnel are not involved in creating IP, it’s advisable to have these agreements in place—you never know where the next great idea might come from, and in any case, it’s easier to get this agreement signed than it is to explain to an investor or acquirer why you didn’t. Without an IP assignment agreement, personnel may be able to claim personal ownership of the IP they created, which can be deadly to a business that relies on IP for its value. If you are missing these agreements, investors and acquirers will notice and it can cause your financing or acquisition to fall through, particularly if the personnel who failed to sign have left or are otherwise unwilling to sign.
What are confidentiality agreements?
Confidentiality agreements, also known as non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), are contracts between a business and its personnel that prevent the personnel from disclosing confidential information about the business. Confidential information can include trade secrets, customer information, financial information, and any other information that is not publicly available. Most founders innately understand the importance of maintaining confidentiality, so rarely fail to have an NDA in place with individuals to whom they provide sensitive information. It should be noted, though, that having confidentiality agreements with your employees and consultants has become particularly important in recent years, as states and the federal government have sought to restrict the use of noncompetition agreements. Having a strong confidentiality agreement can be the key to ensuring that your ex-employees don’t take valuable information to your competitors.
While confidentiality obligations are self-explanatory and a “must-have”, you must also remember that an NDA does not necessarily include an IP assignment agreement. NDAs, particularly those provided by automated/semi-automated document providers, are often designed for use solely during preliminary conversations with potential commercial or collaboration partners. In that context, NDAs do not (and likely should not) have any clauses providing for the transfer of IP ownership. It is therefore critical that you do not simply ask your employees and contractors to sign a “standard” NDA—yes, that agreement will likely prevent those folks from sharing your sensitive information, but if you’re paying them to create IP for you, you’ll also want language that ensures that your company actually owns the work product they create.
Please remember, have your personnel (employees, contractors and even advisers) sign an IP assignment and confidentiality agreement, ideally on the day that individual first starts working for you. File that agreement away somewhere safe (ideally with your lawyer). These agreements ensure that the business retains ownership of its IP and that confidential information is kept secret. If you need help drafting IP assignment and confidentiality agreements, consult with a qualified attorney with experience in representing high-growth startups (believe it or not, there’s “magic language” needed to ensure these agreements work properly, and even a Supreme Court case about it).