Revised Noncompete Legislation Doesn’t Go Far Enough

7/20/09

[Editor's Note: Bijan Sabet of Spark Capital has kindly allowed us to cross-post this entry from his blog reacting to news today of a draft bill proposing compromise language on noncompete agreements in Massachusetts.]

My partners and I have been pushing to end the use of employee non-compete agreements for some time now.

We passionately believe in this issue and back in late 2007 I wrote that we should end these non-compete agreements. We planned on starting with our firm and then encourage our portfolio companies, entrepreneurs and other VCs to end this practice as well.

A few months later I wrote a guest post on GigaOm and also we started the Alliance For Open Competition. The idea was to start a grass roots effort to get rid of these things (n.b. we believe in protecting employers through the use of non-disclosure agreements, non-solicitation agreements and intellectual property governed by patent law). We were thankful that in a relatively short period of time prominent investors and entrepreneurs joined the cause and started speaking up.

Recently the Boston Globe Sunday Editorial took on this issue in their column—”Clause For Concern.”

I was pleased earlier this year when I was contacted by Rep. Brownsberger who was leading an effort for reform on this issue. Rep. Brownsberger and a team created House Bill 1794 which as originally drafted would give employees and employers the same protections that exist in California. I participated in a few sessions and was thrilled with the leadership of this bill. As a result our firm, Spark Capital formally endorsed this bill. I have huge respect and admiration for Representative Brownsberger.

Sometime over the last week or so that bill was modified significantly. The revised draft is on Rep. Brownsberger’s website. In our view, the revised changes won’t solve the problem in our humble opinion because they simply don’t go far enough to reform and create real change.

Here’s the principle changes they made last week:

1. Employees who make under $50k are free of non-competes. If you make more than that you are subject to a non-compete.

2. The revised draft requires that employers give advance notice that they will require non-competes in their offer letter.

3. Punish overreaching by employers by awarding attorney fees to the employee whenever an agreement is reformed or found unenforceable.

* * *

My reaction:

1. I don’t understand or agree with this new threshold of $50k/year. It will leave out plenty of entrepreneurs and employees.

2. The advance notice doesn’t help if every Massachusetts company requires non-competes.

3. Point #3 puts a huge risk on the entrepreneur/employee on the expense front. Who wants to fund a lawsuit? Even if it’s frivolous. Legal fees are expensive and they create a chilling effect. Why? History shows the Massachusetts companies pursue these lawsuits and Massachusetts courts enforce non-competes more than more than other states according to a UCLA study.

4. Ultimately we believe (especially in this market) it is simply unfair that employees are getting laid off and still subject to a non-compete agreement. That is a double whammy. If employees are that important to the company then you should keep them or at least pay them to sit out of the market. (Again you are still bound by NDAs, NSAs, etc.)

5. Opponents of change say that their business will be hurt by ending non-competes in this state. I respectfully disagree. Our company, Spark Capital, doesn’t have non-competes. It doesn’t hurt us. I don’t see CEOs of Apple, Google, Facebook, eBay, Intel, Broadcom lobbying to implement non-competes in California. Companies in California are able to hire the best people they can under the law. That level of open competition is a good thing.

California companies know that innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Innovation occurs in an open market where competition and interaction exist. I also believe that EMC & Akamai would be just fine if for some reason they one day picked up and moved to California. They wouldn’t be harmed by this issue. EMC just bought California-based Data Domain for billions. Data Domain was able to be successful because of their technology and because they were able to hire the best people they could. That’s how this works.

6. This state needs bigger and more successful companies. We are limiting our potential by restricting the labor market. Bigger companies will help small and large companies as well in the long run.

7. Opponents of this change also suggest that the lack of non-competes is hurting California. California is certainly having their economic challenges but it’s not because of this issue. Otherwise, California CEOs would be screaming from the rafters. California has a meaningful revenue shortfall and their expenses are beyond their ability to meet them. But keep in mind, they are creating valuable and growing companies of all sizes.

We will continue pushing for significant reform on this issue. We hope that this bill continues to evolve and returns to the idea of ending non-compete agreements and at the same time protecting companies with other current legal agreements and laws.

We will continue pushing on the grassroots efforts. If you would like to show your sign of support please blog about this, tweet about it, tell your local elected officials, tell your VC, tell your colleagues and let us know by joining our list of supporters.

Bijan Sabet is a general partner at Spark Capital in Boston. Follow @

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