Information is power, which is why people often go to great lengths to protect it. In the wrong hands (at least from the perspective of the party that wants to protect it), certain information can erode the competitive advantage of a business, ruin reputations, sink political careers, or violate someone's privacy. Non-disclosure agreements, or NDAs, are legal agreements compelling a named party to keep quiet about a stated piece of information, whether it's a company's trade secrets or a politician's sordid extramarital affairs.
NDAs are quite common in the world of business, particularly with respect to employees, partners, and intellectual property (or trade secrets in general). But they can be used in a variety of settings and generally serve the purpose of holding the subject of the NDA financially liable for disclosing certain information.
Simply put: If you disclose something after signing an NDA that prohibits you from doing so, you may be sued for damages. But there may be instances where the non-disclosure agreement is unenforceable. This article provides an overview of non-disclosure agreements, when they're used, and what makes NDAs enforceable.
What is a Non-Disclosure Agreement Good For? The Basics
As long as the subject of an NDA is not being asked to keep quiet about illegal activities, these agreements can be used for any number of purposes where the subject's silence is desired. Common uses of an NDA include, but are not limited to, protection of the following:
The Elements of a Non-Disclosure Agreement
Non-disclosure agreements may be one of two basic types: either mutual or non-mutual. A mutual NDA holds both sides of the agreement responsible for not disclosing a given piece of information, while a non-mutual NDA is used to protect disclosure by just one party. But regardless of the type, all NDAs must include the following five elements:
Other provisions that may be added to an NDA include the designation of jurisdiction in case there is a dispute or the right to injunctive relief if necessary (i.e. the ability to stop the discloser from disclosing, in addition to liability for the disclosure).
When are NDAs Enforceable?
While it's possible to sign an invalid non-disclosure agreement believing it to be valid and to fully comply with its terms, the true test of its validity comes when one of the parties tries to enforce it. This is why the validity of an NDA is framed in terms of whether it's actually enforceable should the receiving party (the party agreeing to not disclose certain information) breach the agreement. So in order to understand when NDAs are enforceable, it helps to first consider when they are unenforceable.
Attorneys may challenge the enforceability of an NDA in any number of ways, but here are some of the most common challenges:
Additionally, any of the general reasons that a contract may be unenforceable also apply to NDAs. These reasons can include not having the capacity to contract (due to such factors as age or mental impairment); undue influence or duress; unconscionability; attempting to protect information about illegal activities; or a mistake by one or both parties.
Is Your NDA Enforceable? Talk to a Contract Law Attorney Today
Whether you're trying to protect sensitive information or have been presented with an NDA, it's always important to fully understand legally binding contracts before signing them. If you have questions about the utility or enforceability of a non-disclosure agreement, consider speaking with an experienced contract law attorney near you.