An area in which conflicts of interest often arise is in managing confidential knowledge, or private knowledge that belongs to some clients, but might benefit others. This type of knowledge is called a “trade secret” and only those things that the owner of the knowledge has actively identified as protected qualify as trade secrets.
When an engineer is working as an employee, the work product of the engineer belongs to the employer. (Note that this is NOT true of students working at a University, unless the students are actually producing work as employees. The work you do for class is your own property). There are two kinds of proprietary knowledge (also called intellectual property) that the employee might produce for their employer:
- Legally protected knowledge, such as a patent, trademark or a copyrighted work.
- A trade secret.
Patents and other forms of protected knowledge are public. In fact, patent law is intended to spur innovation by allowing others to learn from the inventor, but not use it, which is why the Patent Office requires a public disclosure of all the details of an invention.
However, trade secrets are not disclosed and consequently not protected by law. A professional engineer may not disclose the trade secrets that belong to their employers — not even after the are no longer employed.
Why? Because it is unethical. (There are also conditions under which this is illegal).
Only those things that the owner of the knowledge has actively identified as protected qualify as trade secrets. For example, it is not unethical to disclose knowledge that has been patented, because that knowledge is already public. Also, it is not unethical to disclose knowledge that an employer has not identified as secret.
Dr. Michael Loui explains:
Remember that not all trade secrets are patentable. In fact, patent law requires a complete description of the invention. The law is intended to allow others to learn from the inventor, but not profit from it. Because not all intellectual property owners want to make the disclosures required by patent law, sometimes they choose not to file a patent, but instead attempt to keep the knowledge as a trade secret.
- Motorola trade secrets thief gets 4-year term (cnsnews.com)
- Genetically Engineering ‘Ethical’ Babies Is a Moral Obligation, Says Oxford Professor (blacklistednews.com)
- Ethics Courses Trending at Graduate Engineering Schools (US News & World Report) (sustainabilityethics.com)
- Intellectual Property Awareness at Universities: Why Ignorance Is Not Bliss (forbes.com)
- Couple Convicted of Stealing Hybrid Car Trade Secrets from GM for China (dailyfinance.com)
- Trade Secret Protection Versus Patent Protection (minnesotaattorney.com)
- FBI Teaching Industry to Protect Trade Secrets (securitymanagement.com)
- Guest Post: First Patent Reform, Now Trade Secret Reform? (patentlyo.com)
- The Problems With Software Patents (forbes.com)
- Jury finds Best Buy took startup firm’s trade secrets (bizjournals.com)