As technology advances, organizers are hosting more and more research and development (R&D) and innovation competitions. As a university professor, I often receive invitations from organizers at home and abroad, asking me to encourage students to participate in their contests.
However, how many participants understand trade secret confidentiality before submitting their work?
Chinese educational institutions often visit Taiwan to invite university students to various R&D competitions. They claim that the scope of these events is so massive that up to tens of thousands of people participate.
They say that many wealthy Chinese “angel investors” attend, searching for the right investment, and a student that stands out could quickly have capital to start a successful business.
In reviewing these invitations, I always ask to read the confidentiality protection clause for participants’ R&D projects, telling them that as a teacher, I have an obligation to protect my students’ work from being stolen. This request is frequently met with silence and then an awkward change of topic.
Apart from events in China, the rules for various local and international R&D and innovation contests found online show that most organizers demand that participants sign a formal statement, which typically includes language such as: “Should an entry be deemed to involve replication, plagiarism, imposture, other illegal conducts or breaches competition rules, the organizer shall disqualify the entrant and revoke any prizes, and it shall demand the return of all prize money and certificate of merit if any.”
However, I have never seen an organizer pledge to protect participants’ intellectual property rights (IPR). IPR protection of technology R&D used to focus on patent protection. As the artificial intelligence era has arrived, and development has progressed at a tremendous pace, many new inventions based on software are easily seen as purely conceptual, which poses a great challenge to patent protection eligibility.
For this reason, trade secret protection is crucial to protecting the results of R&D work.
In Taiwan, much like the US, claiming protection for an R&D secret under the Trade Secrets Act (營業秘密法) requires fulfilling three conditions: secrecy, economic value and reasonable protective measures.
If a developer reveals the results of their R&D efforts publicly while attending an exhibition, or do not take measures to maintain its secrecy, with the result that the organizer or another participant obtains the core secret at the event, it would be difficult for the developer to claim that their rights have been infringed in a lawsuit.
There is a lot of room for improvement in Taiwan’s IPR education. Many R&D projects are completed with the support of government agencies, such as the Ministry of Science and Technology and the Ministry of Education. In other words, R&D capability is a matter of national competitiveness.
Before young people submit their work to a competition, they should protect their rights. By doing so, they are also protecting government-funded R&D projects.
In every competition, participants should be cautious if they need to disclose their R&D secrets. In particular, if they want to participate in a Chinese competition, they should check the credibility of the organizers and carefully study the rules of the competition. They could also consult legal experts to ensure that their R&D work would not be stolen.
As losing R&D secrets is irreversible, students must apply the utmost caution.
Carol Lin is a professor in National Chiao Tung University’s Graduate Institute of Technology Law.
Translated by Eddy Chang
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