24 March 2011

Confidential Information: Hedgehog v Hauser


In the Hedgehog Golf Company Ltd v Hauser [2011] EWHC 689 (Ch) (23 March 2011), Mr. Justice Newey granted the claimant Hedgehog a perpetual injunction from properly disclosing confidential information. in interlocutory proceedings "confidential information" had been defined as "confidential information relating to patent number 1625827 and all other research activities, inventions, secret processes, designs, formulae and product lines".

Now patents and confidentiality are opposites - like oil and water, north and south, chalk and cheese, Lancashire and Yorkshire, cat and dog and so on. If you have invented a new product or process you can either "disclose the invention in a manner which is clear enough and complete enough for the invention to be performed by a person skilled in the art" in the hope of obtaining a 20 year monopoly known as a patent, or you can keep mum and rely on the law of confidence to prevent anyone to whom you may have disclosed your invention from using or blabbing about it, but you can't do both. If the invention cannot easily be reverse engineered - which is the case with Chartreuse and Coca Cola you can keep the recipe secret for centuries.

The patent in this case was for wheel studs:
"A vehicle wheel (1) provided with a plurality of studs (2) which extend radially from a rim of the wheel. The studs are parabolic or substantially parabolic in cross-section in a plane normal to the axis of rotation of the wheel and generally parallel to the rolling direction of the wheel which enables the studs to ride over the surface during rotation of the wheel without removing material from the surface."
According to the specification

"On many golf courses the use of trolleys may be banned during bad weather or damp conditions. This is because the wheels of the trolley can damage the surface of the course and leave muddy tracks.

This problem is encountered with any wheeled vehicle used on a golf course, for example a golf buggy for transporting the players.

The present invention is intended to solve or at least alleviate these and other problems. "
This case was essentially a dispute between the inventors. They had formed a company called The Hedgehog Golf Company of which they each held 50% of the shares. They fell out and one brought unfair prejudice proceedings against the other which resulted in an order for the petitioner to buy out the respondent.

After that judgment the disconsolate respondent threatened to put his services at the disposal of the company's competitors unless the Hedgehog company made it worth his while to keep his trap shut. Bristling with indignation the Hedgehog spiked the respondent's guns by claiming an interim injunction which was granted.

At trial, Mr Justice Newey concluded that the claimant was "well justified in his concern" about the respondent. He had shown scant regard for his co-inventor and had demonstrated an intent to destroy or damage his company. The other slightly strange point about this case was that the injunction was perpetual - that is to say to the crack of dawn. Granted patents only live for 20 years from their priority date.

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