Why ignorance isn’t bliss when it comes to NDAs
I have acquired a rather unfair reputation in the PC Pro office for being a bit of a moaner. However, I’ll happily (or should that be grumpily?) confess that one thing is guaranteed to get my dander up: non-disclosure agreements (NDAs).
These horrendous documents are becoming increasingly common in the technology trade. For those of you who are unfamiliar with their evil ways, they work as follows:
Company A decides to launch a new product, but it doesn’t want Company B or (more importantly) its customers knowing about it, just in case Company B decides to copy it or its customers decide to stop buying its current products and wait for the launch of the Shiny New Loveliness. So Company A invites a bunch of journalists along to see the new product, but before said hacks can get a sniff of the goods, they have to sign a five-page document promising not to mention said product before such and such a date.
I hate these documents for two reasons. First, because they don’t work. Journalists are (shock horror) terrible at keeping secrets. It’s like leaving a bag of sweets in the middle of a nursery and expecting the kids not to eat them. Our lawyer tells me that these ridiculous pieces of paper are legally enforceable, but no-one ever gets sued for breaking them. So the story dribbles out, and the publications that stick to the rules are punished for doing so.
Secondly, I’m a journalist – I’m in the disclosure business. I do this job because (strange as it may seem) I like telling people what’s going on. NDAs are a deliberate attempts to hide the truth, to keep you in the dark. And that’s the exact opposite of my job description.
PAYING THE PRICE
This weekend provided a prime example of how consumers suffer as a result of NDAs. The Ukraine vs England match was being heralded as the first international match to be “internet only”; the only way you could watch the game was to pay anything from £5 to £12 to watch it online or pop along to a cinema with the game. Up to 300,000 fans stumped up to watch the match in the middle of a recession, only to find out immediately after the final whistle had blown that the BBC was showing highlights of the game, after all.
How many of those 300,000 wouldn’t have bothered paying for the live stream if they’d known the highlights were on later? We’ll never know. But the net broadcaster was clearly worried it would be a significant number, because it made the BBC sign a NDA that guaranteed it wouldn’t mention the existence of the highlights until after the match. And our national broadcaster shamefully thought nothing of misleading the public with fake TV schedules in order to secure the rights to the game.
When it comes to technology, the penalties are potentially even worse than Andriy Shevchenko’s effort on Saturday. We may have a £500 DSLR sitting atop of our A List, knowing full well that a better-specified successor is due for release next week, but we can’t tell you about it. So people spend a considerable sum of money on a piece of kit that’s practically obsolete a week later.
Why do we sign these nasty little agreements in the first place? It’s an argument we’ve had many times in the office, but one that always ends with us reluctantly agreeing to carry on signing. If we don’t sign the NDAs, we don’t get early access to the products. If we don’t have early access, we can’t test and benchmark the products before the deadline lifts, which means that all our competitors have full-blown reviews published before we’ve even got our hands on the kit. It can takes days, if not weeks, to benchmark and test a product properly. By the time we’ve got our review of Shiny New Loveliness up, it’s neither new nor shiny. And you start emailing us, wondering why we’re not doing our jobs properly.
What’s more, if we didn’t sign the NDAs we wouldn’t be told about the products in advance, so we (and consequently you) would be none-the-wiser about that new DSLR, graphics card or processors that are due to replace our A List winners anyway.
It’s the catchiest of Catch 22s. Which is why I defer to no-one in my admiration for Apple’s outright contempt for NDAs (at least journalist NDAs, I know it swears its partners to Soviet-level secrecy). Apple’s famed paranoia means it doesn’t brief journalists in advance of big announcements. The first any of us truly know of a new MacBook, iPhone or tablet device is when Steve Jobs announces it on stage. Nobody has to hide the truth, and Apple is generally pretty good at dishing out review units shortly after launch, so that everyone gets a fair crack of the whip.
I wish the rest of the industry would follow Apple’s lead on NDAs. In the meantime, you have my sincere apologies and regret for continuing to sign them.