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Proprietary Information & Competitive Intelligence


Proprietary Information describes the level of confidentiality given to a document or information by the owner.  Generally, a document classified by the owner as "proprietary" limits who can view it or know about its contents.   The term proprietary information is often used interchangeably with the term trade secret.   

Some examples of proprietary information include: 

Financial information such as:  production and overhead costs, profit margins, sales and order volumes prior to quarterly release, budgets, quotas and targets, information on a particular product's sales, orders or projections. 

Marketing information such as:  product-introduction plans and dates, market share and competitive position, short- and long-term market strategy or customers. 

Research and Development information such as: technical and performance specifications, technical reports, product plans, projects in progress, project problems or product code names. 

Manufacturing information such as: vendor names/relationships, production and inventory levels, future plans and sites, material cost, product failure rates, chemical formulas, or manufacturing processes.

Steps Companies Take to Protect Information:

An owner who seeks to protect information considered to be proprietary or a trade secret must derive an economic value from not having this information widely known and must take steps to maintain the confidentiality of this information if they hope to have any legal recourse in the event that sensitive information is disclosed.   Companies often require that their employees sign non-competition and proprietary information agreements that restrict what information employees can disclose during their employment with that company or use once they have left the company.  They may limit employee access to computer files, maintain secure areas where sensitive information is stored, and they may limit visitor access to their premises.  The Economic Espionage Act of 1996, the first federal act dealing with the theft of trade secrets imposes severe penalties for stealing trade secrets.  

There is no single, definitive standard used by businesses for determining what is proprietary.   What is considered proprietary varies by industry and from enterprise to enterprise.  If the information you are looking for does not seem to be readily available, it may be that it is considered by its owner to be proprietary and is not available for public use.

Competitive Intelligence, or CI,  refers to the legal and ethical collection, analysis, and dissemination of information about a business environment, industry competitors, or  

Competitive information includes anything related to the business environment or to a competitor,  for example, information related to products, markets, pricing, or business plans. This information could be drawn from published sources or could otherwise be widely available to the public. 

CI is information that has been legally found and analyzed. It does not involve industrial espionage or commercial spying.  The products of competitive intelligence activities may be reports and services produced by a person or group of people who hope to make back money invested in the effort.  Reports may cost thousands of dollars and, because of the expense, are not usually found in academic libraries.

Searching for Competitive Intelligence or Proprietary Information

Because proprietary information is closely guarded the only way to search for this kind of information is to look for raw information. Once a lot of raw information is collected it must be analyzed. Analysis turns raw data into competitive intelligence.  

There is NO one place to look for raw information.  Some of the likely places to look include:  

  • company websites
  • annual report and 10K [overview of business and financial data]
  • press releases
  • trade journals
  • conference papers
  • patents and trademarks
  • product catalogs
  • associations and societies 
  • employees, vendors, contractors 

Note: There are companies in the business of collecting and analyzing competitive intelligence.  Some of the better known include:  Fuld, Gartner, Moody's and Disclosure.

How to get started

Company WebPages

Use your favorite search engine to find the company's home page. Be sure and check a company's subsidiaries because they reveal additional information.  

Company Annual Reports and other SEC Filings

Every year all U.S. public companies are required to submit critical business, financial and competitive details to the U.S. Security and Exchange Commission (SEC).  These quarterly, annual, and other relevant reports can be searched. 

Notes: Privately held U.S. companies are not required to file information with the SEC. International companies are required to make SEC filings only if their stock is traded on any of the U.S. securities exchanges.  

Press Releases

Press releases can be a source of current information on new products, services,  management, as well as changes in business strategies, and etc.  However, what is reported is at the company's discretion. The first place to look is on the company's home page. 

Specific Competitive Intelligence websites:

Finding Published Information

Thousands of articles are available to valid UT-Austin users both electronically and in the libraries. The following is a selected list of  business and technical information sources. For access, go to, select, Databases and Indexes to Articles under Research Tools, and then select one of the following from the Databases Alphabetical by Title list.  

  • Business Source Complete - Provides abstracts and indexing for more than 2,680 (with 2,260 full text) scholarly business journals covering management, economics, finance, accounting and international business. 
  • Factiva - Global information resource, providing full-text access to top national and international newspapers, newswires, business journals, market research reports, analysts reports and web sites.
  • Engineering Index [EI and Compendex ] - Indexes 4,500 journals, reports and conference proceedings in engineering and technology.
  • FIS Online - Includes both national and international company data. Provides immediate access to data on more than 10,000 NYSE, AMEX, Nasdaq and other select regional exchange companies. Coverage includes: history, business description, properties, subsidiaries, officers, directors, long-term debt, Moody's rating, capital stock, income statement, balance sheet.
  • Investext - Information on industries and public corporations. Contains reports and forecasts prepared by top Wall Street and international brokerage firms.
  • Lexis/Nexis - Wide range of general-interest wire services, newspapers and magazines from around the world. Also includes company profiles and financial reports, government transcripts, trade journals and academic and legal databases.

Product Catalogs

Product catalogs can be a good source of information on current products or services. Individual company catalogs list only their products; however, the catalog services listed below provide the names of several companies who make or sell specific products. These can be a good source of comparative information.

  • Grainger Catalog - This catalog includes 78,000 MRO supplies, including tools, lighting, electrical supplies, distribution and control products, motors, sanitary supplies and equipment, maintenance and safety supplies and HVAC, storage and material handling equipment.
  • McMaster-Carr - Well-known supplier of more than 340,000 items. They stock everything from aluminum ingots to pipe wrenches.
  • Sigma-Aldrich Catalog - Searchable product catalog from a major research chemical supplier. Search by catalog number, name, formula, CAS registry number. Chemical/physical information, structure image and MSDS are displayable.
  • Thomas Register (ThomCat) - Electronic version of a well-known index to manufactures, producers and sellers of industrial goods and services.

Associations, Societies, Faculty Experts

Trade journals and trade shows are another place to look for competitive product information. Many industries belong to trade associations that produce trade journals and hold trade shows, e.g. Hardwood Door Manufacturers Association. The first two directories listed below provide listings of associations by name and type. Each entry lists, trade journal name, number of members, and name of the director.   

  • Associations and Societies - Excellent searchable listing by abbreviations (e.g. ASME) or name of thousands of U.S. and International professional and trade associations. 
  • Encyclopedia of Associations - Searchable by name and subject. This is the grandfather of association and society listings.
  • COS Pivot - Provides information on researchers and their research activity. Most of the listed researchers are located within universities or government research facilities.

Patent and Trademark Information as Sources for Competitive Intelligence

Patents always provide the name of the inventor, a technical description of a patented device or composition of matter (drug, alloy, etc.) and the legal description of what was protected. Patents may also provide the name of the assignee or owner of the patent. All U.S. patents can be searched by owner or inventor from 1976 to the present. All U.S. patents from 1796 to the present can be searched by subject classification. 

U.S. Trademarks are another good source of competitive information. Registered U.S. trademarks differentiate one owner's goods and services from another's. All currently registered trademarks can be searched by owner, by elements of the mark and by type of goods or services.  

Searching patents and trademarks is an effective way to find information on the business and development activities of U.S. and international public and  privately held companies.  


Keep in Mind

And lastly, you'll be happier if you remember the mantras of proprietary information:

  • Businesses make money
  • Information is a business resource
  • Information is proprietary
  • Proprietary information is secret
  • Secret means "not readily available"

Good luck. For more help, contact the Engineering Library at The University of Texas at Austin.