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The Putative "Differences" Between Patents & Trade Secrets Supposedly Determining the Choice Between Them Are Not There -- No. 16

In the past — and even today — if trade secrecy was contemplated at all, for example for manufacturing process technology, which can be secreted unlike gadgets or machinery, which can be reverse-engineered, the question always was phrased in the alternative.  For example, titles of articles discussing the matter read “Trade Secret vs. Patent Protection,” “To patent or not to patent?,” “Trade Secret or Patent?,” “To Patent or to Padlock?,” etc.  Anent this choice, the respective advantages and disadvantages, for example, in terms of duration and scope of protection, are considered controlling.  However, on scrutiny the perceived differences are not there.  The patent life may be more or less than twenty years from filing and a garden-variety type of trade secret, far from being indefinite, may last but a few years.  Nor is there a difference as regards the scope of protection with “everything under the sun made by man” being patentable.  And while a patent does, and a trade secret does not, protect against independent discovery, a patent leads to efforts by competitors to design or invent around and a trade secret, properly guarded and secured, may withstand attempts to crack it.

In greater detail, as for the respective duration of patents and trade secrets, it is simplistic to state that the patent life is twenty years from filing and trade secrets last indefinitely and let it go at that.  Patents too can last longer than twenty years. They can be extended by up to five years or longer under the Drug Price Competition and Patent Term Restoration Act of 1984, the Uruguay Round Agreements Act of 1994 and the American Inventors Protection Act of 1999 or by private acts.  Patent coverage can also be extended by a process of “evergreening,” that is, by filing for improvement patents. And of course a patent can have a life of less than 20 years if it lapses for non-payment of maintenance fees or if the patent or patent claims are held invalid or are abandoned, disclaimed or dedicated.

On the other hand, when it comes to trade secrets the term may be indefinite but that is rarely the case, the notable examples of the Coca-Cola formula, the musical instrument cymbal, the Angostura Bitters, etc. to the contrary notwithstanding. Most products or devices are subject to analysis or reverse engineering sooner or later and manufacturing techniques more susceptible to trade secrecy may also lose secrecy in various ways. Trade secrecy may dissipate in a matter of a few years in view of the high degree of employee mobility and inadvertent or deliberate leakage. Again the perceived differences in duration may not exist as a practical matter.


Anent subject matter scope of protection via patents and trade secrets, the common perception is that the scope of possible protection for trade secrets is much broader than for patents. If § 101 of the Patent Code is compared with the definition of a trade secret from the Uniform Trade Secret Code, that appears to be the case. The list of patentable categories according to the Patent Code (process, machine, manufacture or composition of matter) is a very brief one indeed, while the definition of trade secrets is open-ended, especially since it also includes commercial matters, such as, customer lists and other business information. However, on closer scrutiny and taking into account the Supreme Court decision in Chakrabarty (1980 — establishing the patentability of living organisms) to the effect that “everything under the sun that is made by man” is patentable, and the holding in State Street Bank that formerly unpatentable business methods and computer programs are also patentable, the scope of patent protection is equally all-encompassing.  It is true that to be patentable fairly stringent requirements must be met in terms of novelty, utility and unobviousness, etc. but on the trade secrets side there are also fairly stringent requirements in terms of commercial value and secrecy measures that have to be put in place and maintained. Thus it appears that the differences when it comes to scope of protectable subject matter are not very large at all, if there are any.


Even with respect to the nature of protection, the question arises whether there is really a crucial difference. It is true that patents confer exclusive rights, that is the right to exclude others from making, using, offering to sell, selling or importing a given invention. On the other hand, trade secrets provide no protection against independent developers or those who reverse-engineer or analyze products that are secret or are produced by secret processes. But here too a patent application or patent, after they are published and the invention is disclosed, often spur competitors to invent around and develop improved products which may be separately patented and may not be dominated and become commercially much more important than the earlier more basic invention. The trade secret, on the other hand, if proper security measures are taken, may be safely maintained for a longer period of time. Also an important patent may cause competitors to seek invalidation.


Regarding touted differences in terms of costs and efforts required in obtaining and maintaining patents and in securing and maintaining trade secrets, there may not be much of a difference either, even though it is true that patenting can be expensive. However, implementing measures to safeguard trade secrets, if not already in place for other business and legal reasons, may be equally expensive or over a period of time even more expensive. But the matter of cost and effort is of no import when it comes to protecting important technology.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on March 6, 2008 1:41 PM.

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