In Seyfarth’s third installment of its 2015 Trade Secrets Webinar series, Seyfarth attorneys focused on non-compete and trade secret considerations from an international perspective. Specifically, the webinar will involved a discussion of non-compete and trade secret issues in Europe and China compared to the United States. This webinar provided valuable insight for companies who compete in the global economy and must navigate the legal landscape in these countries to ensure protection of their trade secrets and confidential information, including the effective use of non-compete and non-disclosure agreements
As a conclusion to this well-received webinar, we compiled a list of key takeaway points, which are listed below.
International…local law compliance is key
One size does not fit all! Requirements for enforceable restrictive covenants vary dramatically from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. However, there are some common requirements and issues regarding enforceability based on the region (e.g. in Europe, see below). Bearing in mind non-compete covenants across the world may be unlawful in certain countries or heavily restricted, employers should carefully tailor agreements to satisfy local legal requirements and appropriately apply local drafting nuances to aid enforceability of any restrictive covenants.
The general approach to restrictive covenants in Europe, is that the restrictions should not go further than is reasonably necessary to protect the employer’s legitimate business interests. This restrictive approach is a continuing trend across Europe. For example, there is a recent prohibition in the Netherlands on non-compete clauses in fixed-term contract unless justified by the special interests of the company. In practice, this means that employers should particularly focus on the duration and scope (in terms of geographical coverage and the employee’s own personal activities) of the restrictions and be mindful of any local payment obligations when preparing restrictive covenants (e.g. in France and Germany). Europe is also making an attempt to remedy the uneven levels of protection and remedies in relation to trade secrets. The draft EU Directive for trade secret protection is currently making its way through the legislative process with no firm timeline for adoption.
In addition to local or regional nuances, employers should take advantage of other contractual and/or tactical mechanisms as a “belt-and braces” approach, such as, claw-backs and forfeiture of deferred compensation (where permitted), use of garden leave provisions, and strategic use of forum selection and choice-of-law provisions. Employers operating in the U.S. should also consider strategic use of mandatory forum selection and choice-of-law provisions in restrictive covenant agreements with U.S.-based employees.
Practical measures should also be taken to protect confidential information and trade secrets, including limiting access to sensitive information, using exit interviews, and (provided that applicable privacy laws are followed) monitoring use of company IT resources and conducting forensic investigations of departing employees’ computer devices.
France…do not miss the deadline
Drafting a non-compete clause under French labor law requires specific care as Courts are particularly critical of the following: duration, the geographical and activities scope, the conditions in which the employer releases the employee from such obligation, the employee’s role, the interests of the company and the financial compensation provided by the clause.
Recent case law shows that French Courts are strict when it comes to the interpretation of the non-compete clauses and the possibility to waive the non-compete clause. If an employer misses the relevant contractual deadline to release an employee from their non-compete, the financial compensation will be due for the entire period. Similarly, if the employer waives the non-compete prematurely, the Courts will consider the waiver as invalid.
During employment an employee is subject to a general obligation of confidentiality and breach may be subject to civil and criminal sanctions. Only “trade secrets”, however, are protected post-termination under certain circumstances. Employers should therefore automatically include a confidentiality clause in employment agreements to strengthen the protection of the company’s data post-termination. Good news for employers, the French High Court recently confirmed that, unlike non-compete covenants, a confidentiality clause does not require any financial compensation.
United Kingdom…less is NOT more
Restrictive covenants are potentially void as an unlawful restraint of trade! In practical terms, this means that such covenants are only likely to be enforceable where they are fairly short in duration, the restriction is narrowly focused on the employee’s own personal activities (e.g. by geographical scope) and is specific to the commercial environment. Unlike in some European jurisdictions, payment will not ‘rescue’ an unenforceable restriction. In addition, the English Courts tend to have an unforgiving nature when it comes to poor drafting even if the intention of the parties is obvious. Employers should therefore also consider other creative and acceptable ways to aid enforceability, such as, deferring remuneration and varying and reaffirming covenants.
Absent any agreement, only “trade secrets”, which is narrowly defined, will be protected after employment. Employers should therefore ensure that employment contracts and/or other free-standing binding agreements provide full coverage for the protection of confidential and other valuable business information post-termination. Often the physical protection of confidential information is underestimated (e.g. encrypting data, installing passwords, secure storage, etc.), which can be a more effective and a less costly approach for employers in the long-term. Employers should therefore also seek to retain physical control of such information in order to reduce and limit unwanted disclosure and misuse.
China …. stay atop an evolving regulatory system
In China, employers should ensure that they have a non-compete agreement with the employee at the time of employment, so that the employer can decide whether to enforce or not to enforce the non-compete agreement for a period of post-employment.
In addition, employers should ensure that documents are marked with ‘confidential’, or that other measures are taken to protect confidential information. Otherwise, remedies may not be available under the Chinese law for breach of confidential obligations. Employers should also review and update rules and policies regarding confidentiality and security arrangements. Pre-employment vetting of R&D staff is also essential to prevent unexpected breach or non-compliance with trade secret and IP rights.
As a notable (and relatively recent) development, Injunctive relief for trade secret infringement is available in Shanghai and Anhui.