A friend came to me with a question regarding a case he was working: “can a public owner require that bidders use a specific brand name product?” “Of course not,” I said “proprietary specifications are illegal.” Or, at least that’s what I assumed. To my surprise, the law in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is not as clear as it is in other jurisdictions.
What is a proprietary specification?
A proprietary specification lists a product by brand name, make, model and/model that a contractor must (shall) utilize in construction. A basic example of a proprietary specification would state:
“Air Handlers shall be “Turbo Max” as manufactured by Chiller Corp.”
There are two problems with a proprietary specification (other than potentially being illegal): (a) they limit competition, and (b) invite steered contract awards. They limit competition because it limits the type of material that can be used on the project. In the example above, there could be equivalent air handlers available at a better price but the contractor could not use that lower priced product in its bid. Thus, the taxpayers end up paying more for tile. Also, contractors may not be able to secure a certain brand name product because of exclusive distribution agreements. Again, using the example above, contractor A’s competitor may have the exclusive distribution agreement with Chiller Corp.