oneNDA Is mediocreNDA: Thoughts on a Proposed Standard Nondisclosure Agreement

oneNDA is a new initiative that “set out on a mission to standardise the NDA so that lawyers can spend less time on them and more time on more valuable work.” For more about oneNDA, go here.

This week they released their “simple, plain English, open-source NDA,” also called, somewhat confusingly, oneNDA. My verdict is that it’s mediocre and doesn’t live up to the hype.

NDAs and Me

Because nondisclosure agreements (NDAs) are a nuisance, and because pretty much all companies have to deal with them, it seems that anyone interested in turning contract drafting into more of a commodity process starts with NDAs.

That was the case with me. About ten years ago, with the help of Business Integrity, the developer of the document-automation software Contract Express (now owned by Thomson Reuters), I built a highly customizable automated NDA. It was a thing of beauty. (For years, Thomson Reuters featured a screenshot of it on the home page for Contract Express.) But from a business and marketing perspective, it was a failure.

My automated NDA served its purposes as a proof-of-principle, and I’m confident it will rise again in some other form. But meanwhile, oneNDA caught my eye because the people behind it, Electra Japonas and Roisin Noonan, had obviously managed to attract significant attention—no mean feat.

So I emailed them in April to ask if they were interested in chatting. Soon after I met with Roisin on Zoom. The conversation turned a little tetchy when Roisin explained that oneNDA was a crowdsourcing play. I’ve long thought it obvious that crowdsourcing contract content is a terrible idea (see for example this 2014 blog post), and I was surprised to have it rear its head again. We quickly wrapped up our meeting and that was that.

Shortcomings in oneNDA’s Document

Now they’ve made available the fruit of their efforts. In the half hour I spent reading it, I spotted about 30 things I would have done differently. Some involve mistakes, others involve uncertain judgment. Some involve what’s said, others involved how it’s said. Some are trivial, others matter. I’m not going to list all my points—it wouldn’t make for scintillating reading, and I’m not inclined to do oneNDA’s work for them. Instead, I’ll mention just three examples I found interesting.

First, the one-page preamble touting the benefits of oneNDA says, “No more battle of the forms.” The term “battle of the forms” refers to a buyer and seller of goods exchanging preprinted order forms with their own different terms on the back and then proceeding with the deal without signing a final contract or reaching agreement on the terms. “Battle of the forms” has nothing to do with NDAs, so it’s odd that oneNDA refers to it. If instead they mean that oneNDA will result in less time wasted in dickering, they should have said so.

Second, here’s the first exception to the definition of the defined term “Confidential Information”: “in the public domain not by breach of this Agreement”. As I explain in this 2018 blog post, use of the phrase public domain in this context is a mistake. I’ve long used it as a sign that the people responsible for an NDA don’t know what they’re doing.

And third, here’s section 2(a) (emphasis added): “The Receiver may share the Confidential Information with its Permitted Receivers … but only if they: (i) need to know it, and only use it, for the Purpose, and (ii) have agreed to keep it confidential and restrict its use to the same extent that the Receiver has.” So you’re allowed to disclose only if you’re somehow able to see into the future and know that the further recipient will only use it for the permitted purpose? That makes no sense.

These three glitches don’t represent intractable problems—they could be easily fixed. But they suggest a general cluelessness. The cumulative effect of these three points and the others I spotted is that oneNDA’s contract incorporates a decent helping of the systemic dysfunction of traditional contract drafting. It’s hardly ideal as a foundation for an initiative that proposes to change how we use NDAs.

Explaining the Shortcomings

What explains the dysfunction? After all, according to the preamble, “The terms of oneNDA have been discussed extensively between some of the brightest legal minds in the industry.” That reeks of hubris. oneNDA might have on their steering committee people from well-known companies and law firms, but that’s no guarantee of contract-drafting quality.

Traditional contract drafting consists of copy-and-pasting, on faith, from precedent contracts of questionable quality and relevance. And that’s aggravated by entrenched legalistic hairsplitting. So it’s simple for me to demonstrate the pervasive shortcomings in contracts prepared by all sorts of august organizations. (For example, see this recent blog post for links to my analyses of the Salesforce master subscription agreement, and see this 2016 blog post for my dissection of a specimen of “Magic Circle” drafting.) That’s likely the background that oneNDA’s “brightest minds” brought to the task of creating a standard NDA.

However bright those people might be, there’s nothing to suggest they’re contract-drafting specialists, and that’s who you need to optimally express a transaction in a contract. (For more about contract-drafting specialists, see this 2017 blog post.)

And more to the point, I don’t need to concern myself with who prepared oneNDA’s document, as I’m equipped to evaluate their work. (For more about me, go here.) That’s what I’ve done, and I’ve found it wanting.

The Broader Context

oneNDA’s document presents other issues. For one thing, it’s aggressively short. That involves trade-offs, and I’m not confident they’ve made the right call (although I acknowledge that I myself could be more vigorous about cutting fat). Furthermore, they offer only the most rudimentary customization. I’m inclined to offer more customization, and I don’t think that vitiates the idea of a standard. But those topics are beyond the scope of this post.

In one respect, the shortcomings in oneNDA’s document are benign, as it’s more sensible than the wretched NDAs plenty of companies find themselves signing. The bar is low for standard NDAs—standardized mediocrity is better than an endless procession of different—and generally crappy—NDAs.

So if you find that oneNDA saves you time, great. But I’m not heralding it as the new standard in NDAs. I’d like to think that something better will come along. Ideally, something more ambitious too, because the real prize is bringing standards to contracts that people actually care about. When it comes to contract drafting initiatives, NDAs can take their place in line with other kinds of contracts.

[Updated 11 September 2021: Regarding implications of in the public domain, today I added this comment to another post.]

About the author

Ken Adams is the leading authority on how to say clearly whatever you want to say in a contract. He’s author of A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting, and he offers online and in-person training around the world. He’s also chief content officer of LegalSifter, Inc., a company that combines artificial intelligence and expertise to assist with review of contracts.