By STEPHEN A. SONNENBERG
The answer to the March Ethics question is complicated, and not a simple yes or no.
It basically asked, "Are ideas confidential?"
The answer depends a lot on the individual circumstances. Ideas or thoughts in one's head cannot be erased. Those ideas belong to the consultant/employee under many circumstances.
A question that arises is "Did the ideas originate with the consultant or employee?" If not, then the ideas probably do not belong to the individual in question.
But sometimes disputes arise as to where the idea started. Have you ever heard the phrase, "A dry hole is an orphan, but a producer has many fathers"? In the academic world, a common question is who is going to publish the ideas generated in a thesis or dissertation, the supervising faculty member or the student or both. Also, where did the concepts originate?
Physical data such as maps, seismic sections, digital data bases, etc., probably belong to the client/employer (unless otherwise stated in the consulting or work contract). A consultant can freely use data developed for a client if the issue of ownership is covered in their consulting contract.
For example, the consultant may have in the agreement that any data used or developed during the contract remains or becomes property of the consultant.
A lot of clients, however, do not like this kind of provision.
If the client wants sole rights to the data, then this should also be clearly stated in the contract. The situation becomes even more complicated when a company buys a digital database and has another consultant work on it. This type of situation is generally covered in the license agreement that came with the database.
The case where a company goes out of business or is sold is also complicated. Rights to the data may have been retained by the principals of the old company or sold when the company was sold.
The consultant should have an agreement or contract that allows him/her to use the data. If the consultant does not have such an agreement then the easiest solution for the consultant is to recreate the data from scratch.
Although this may be time consuming, it may avoid litigation down the road.
In addition, many companies that purchase other companies may not have license agreements for databases or seismic data that the old company had. Many times these license agreements do not transfer to the new company.