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In addition to academic work, I have done private work in industry that is directly related to the material I'm presenting. For one of my lessons, I would like to do a case study, where I take a problem posed by one of my clients and discuss the thought process and methodology I utilized to solve the problem.

For the case study, I do not intend to reference the company name (instead referring to them as "Company X"). I intended to keep the industry and solution mostly the same, although I would not present or divulge any source code from the deliverable or data from the actual company.

My concern is that the technology I developed for the company may be considered proprietary or a trade secret by the company. While I wouldn't be presenting enough for someone to identify the client or exactly how I solved the problem, I fear that I may no longer have the right to present on this information without explicit permission from the former client.

To enumerate, my question has the following facets:

  • Do I have an ethical or legal obligation (in the United States) to ask the former client's permission before doing an anonymized case study, even if none of their data or my deliverable is presented?

  • Is there any standard or rule of thumb for using personal real-world examples in an academic setting while respecting a company's right to maintain trade secrets?

To clarify, there was no NDA/Intellectual Property transfer document or other legal document that could complicate the situation. The work was performed as a independent contractor in the United States.

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    The old adage for referencing was "when in doubt, cite". In the same vein, I'd ask the company if I can use their project as a case study. – Allure Jan 3 '18 at 19:55
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Honestly, I would not do this. I am not familiar with US law so I cannot give you any legal advice. However, there are several other non-legal risks you have to bear.

According to your description, you intend to stick closely to the real case in your presentation. The students might be intelligent enough to draw the necessary conclusions or could even be involved with the company. I would not risk this.

As a result, the company could get the impression, that you have leaked confidential data to the students. Indepdent from the question whether this is illegal or legal, facing a lawsuit can easily have a disastrous effect on your career. Furthermore, this can also result in loss of trust, again impacting your career.

I only see two possible options here:

  • You ask your former client for a written(!) permission
  • You largely modify your example / problem

Both methods, when done correctly, will save you from a lot of risk.

I had a similar problem, when I wanted to write a paper about work I did for an industry partner. Usually, this is quite strict, since nobody wants to have their confidential solutions published. However, I was able to chance the problem and solution sufficiently. Despite the same ideas were used, the original problem and client remained hidden and I was able to publish my ideas. This was quite a lot of work to do, since I had to redo most of the code and experiments. Altogether, this was worth the effort since I do not have any fear of legal consequences and we still have a good relationship to our clients.

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Do I have an ethical or legal obligation to ask the former client's permission before doing an anonymized case study, even if none of their data or my deliverable is presented?

At a minimum, you have an ethical obligation to comply with the consulting agreement. If your legal obligation under the specific terms of the agreement are unclear to you, then you have an ethical obligation to seek clarification before using the information/material, because if not, you could inadvertently breach the agreement and an inadvertent breach is still a breach for which you may be held accountable. If you are under no confidentiality or consulting agreement (as you mentioned) then the decision seems to be largely a matter of professional judgement.

Is there any standard or rule of thumb for using personal real-world examples in an academic setting while respecting a company's right to maintain trade secrets?

Companies that do not require a confidentiality agreement cannot expect their information to remain confidential, but consultants that divulge confidential information cannot expect to retain a professional reputation and keep getting hired. The best practice is to always treat client information as if you were under contract, even when you are not.

The lack of a consulting agreement can signal that the company is unconcerned about the secrecy of information you were privy to, or that your professional courtesy is taken for granted, or that someone forgot to ask you to sign the agreement, or that the company has not yet gotten around to creating one yet... The problem is that without a contract to explain the company's interests, you may not know what types of information are most important not to disclose.

In my experience, confidentiality agreements usually require the return of all files, supplies, and so on to the company at the conclusion of the project. In that case, the use of any physical/digital assets from the project, or dissemination of any company information not available to the public, for purposes other than the company's interests would put the contractor at risk.

While it can feel uncomfortable broaching topics like this with a client - maybe the project did not go well or you did not get along with the client, or maybe it just seems like asking will raise alarms - no one knows better than the client whether the client would have an issue with your proposed use of information. If you do ask, and the client says 'yes', then you can proceed safely with no further discomfort. If the client says 'no' you have avoided trouble and demonstrated your integrity, though you will have do deal with the need to produce alternative subject matter. Finally, large companies are likely to have a legal department (probably not relevant in this case) that are accustomed to answering questions about potential conflict of interest. Simply asking questions does not imply guilt.

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It sounds like this might be your first time through this, so I think you should get a consultation with an employment or intellectual property attorney to get the legal framework. What you learn you'll use again, so it's worth the money.

I'm not an attorney, but I think you're in the clear to go ahead with your plan as described to provide an anonymized and abstracted description of the problem and your solution. To me, the important points are (1) the lack of any written confidentiality agreement, (2) the lack of any reason to believe that disclosure would harm their interests, (3) the academic purpose, (4) the limited and anonymized nature of the disclosure, (5) the disclosure is of your own skill and personal experience.

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