It’s getting pretty rough out there for employers who want to control their employees’ behavior. Think back to March 2020, when the pandemic was just beginning and we took a look at this new phenomenon of widespread remote work. We imagined managers wistfully recalling the Renaissance, when artisans could be imprisoned, or even threatened with death, to make sure they didn’t breach confidence. Well, in modern times at least, companies can use noncompete agreements with departing employees to avoid messy and unpredictable litigation over trade secrets. Maybe not for long. As we learned last month, the FTC is on the warpath about noncompetes, and it may not be long before the entire country is forced to emulate California and just do without. Whatever happens with the FTC proposal, it’s pretty clear that noncompetes are also under attack by the states, where new laws limit their effectiveness.
In January 2023, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) unveiled a proposed ban on non-compete clauses that prohibits employees from joining or forming competitive firms following the termination of their employment. According to the FTC, non-compete clauses unfairly and unnecessarily stifle employees’ ability to pursue better employment opportunities. While this criticism may ring true in the case of lower-wage workers, such as restaurant and warehouse employees, even the staunchest critics of non-compete clauses will typically acknowledge that they can — and often do — play a legitimate role in the protection of trade secrets. This is why the FTC’s proposed rulemaking is causing consternation in the intellectual property community.
When Adam Smith spoke about an “invisible hand,” he was talking about a good thing – the way that free markets harness the laws of competition, supply and demand and self-interest to improve the economy. But he also could have been thinking of another law. The law of unintended consequences: that actions of people, and especially of governments, always have unanticipated effects. Sometimes these effects can be perverse, reflecting a profound failure of “second-order thinking” (in other words, thinking ahead about “how could this possibly go wrong?”). On January 5, 2023 – a day that may go down in IP infamy – we saw two bold actions. First, the “Protecting American IP Act” became law; and second, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) proposed a new rule that would invalidate noncompete agreements across the United States. But wait, you might say, that actually sounds great! What’s the problem with protecting American IP, and making the rest of the country join California in unleashing talent to go where it likes? Well, don’t be too hasty. Stay with me on this, and you will see just how shortsighted our government can be.
Trade secret jurisprudence, originally conceived in the common law of torts as a way to enforce confidential relationships, now has a sharper focus directed at the property interest of businesses in the data that forms the major portion of their asset base. In the process, trade secrets have taken their place of respect alongside the “registered rights” of patents, copyrights, trademarks and designs. But just because we now enjoy statutory guidance through the Uniform Trade Secrets Act (“UTSA”), enacted with some variations in every state but New York, and national uniformity in federal courts through the Defend Trade Secrets Act of 2016 (“DTSA”), the law continues to evolve much as it did a century ago—that is, through the opinions of judges deciding individual cases on their facts.
The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York last week dismissed a trade secrets lawsuit against International Business Machines Corp (IBM) and IBM China by Beijing Neu Cloud Oriental System Technology Co. The Chinese firm alleged that IBM stole trade secrets from its joint venture in order to sell IBM products to the Chinese market. IBM China and Beijing Teamsun Technology Co. originally formed Beijing Neu Cloud in 2014 as a joint venture to distribute IBM technology in China. But in a 2021 complaint, Beijing Neu Cloud alleged that IBM induced “Neu Cloud and its majority owner through later-breached contracts to expend resources and provide IBM with access to sensitive, confidential customer information, which IBM then secretly used to create competing ventures in China.”
It was February 2017 when Waymo, Google’s self-driving car unit, sued Uber in what would become the biggest trade secret case of the century. Waymo alleged that its former manager, Anthony Levandowski, had organized a competing company while still at Waymo, and before leaving had downloaded 14,000 confidential documents. As it turned out, Uber had known about this when it agreed to pay $680 million for Levandowski’s brand new startup; and we’ve already looked at how the hubris of that hasty transaction provides lessons for hiring in new markets driven by emerging technology.
I was recently reminded of a contest that we often played in Scouts, called Kim’s Game. Derived from a story in Rudyard Kipling’s 1903 novel Kim, it gave you a few minutes to stare at a tray full of diverse objects you might find in a junk drawer – things like a key, pocketknife, nickel, compass, button, crystal. At the end of the allotted time, you were challenged to write down as many as you could remember. My recollection was triggered by a court order. Silicon Valley startups Wisk Aero and Archer Aviation have been slugging it out in trade secret litigation over “flying taxis” that are designed to take off and land like helicopters but fly with wings and propellers. The basic technology has been around for quite a while but making it practical as a battery-powered (and ultimately autonomous) taxi service demands a lot of creative engineering. Wisk, a joint venture between Boeing and a company owned by Google founder Larry Page, has been developing its models for more than a decade. Aero, which has a relationship with United Airlines, is a more recent entrant, and ramped up its workforce by hiring away 17 of Wisk’s engineers, including its vice president of engineering. For more salacious details, see this piece in Fast Company.
On September 2, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit issued a decision in Amyndas Pharmaceuticals, S.A. v. Zealand Pharma AS affirming the District of Massachusetts’ decision to dismiss trade secret misappropriation claims between former drug development partners. However, the First Circuit found that the district court abused its discretion in denying Amyndas’ motion to file an amended complaint and vacated the dismissal of trade secret claims against Zealand’s U.S. subsidiary.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit on Monday said in a precedential decision that Jiangsu Tie Mao Glass Co. Ltd. (TMG) should have shown up sooner in a trade secrets misappropriation lawsuit brought against it by PPG Industries if it wanted to have a chance at winning. But by failing to enter the litigation until after PPG asked the district court to enter default judgment and award damages for unjust enrichment, “its protestations were and are too little and much too late,” said the appellate court.
An “NNN” agreement is short for Non-Disclosure/Non-Use/Non-Circumvention agreement, which means the information cannot be shared with anyone, it cannot be used in any way, and “behind-the-back” or design around tactics are forbidden. In recent years, signing NNN agreements has become widely adopted and is now the standard initial step in dealings with Chinese companies, particularly original equipment manufacturers (OEMs). An NNN Agreement is much more than just a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA). An NDA focuses narrowly on preventing secret information from being revealed to a third party or to the public, which is not sufficient for OEMs in China. In contrast, an NNN agreement not only contains confidentiality provisions, but also prevents misuse of confidential information.
One of the most frustrating questions I get from clients asks “what is the difference between ‘confidential’ and ‘proprietary’ information?” Or, “how do I help employees distinguish between either of those terms and real ‘trade secrets?’” Then there are people, including some judges, who trivialize the importance of some useful business information by saying it doesn’t “rise to the level of a trade secret.” That last one makes no sense these days, as we’ll see shortly. But first let’s identify the source of this nomenclature problem: it’s an outfit you’ve probably never heard of called the American Law Institute.
Corporate espionage is as old as the day is long. The modern digital world has made it easier than ever to gain access to sensitive “secret sauce”, such as software, customer and vendor lists, business methods, techniques, formulas and recipes. With a significant shift to a remote working environment and the relative ease of employee portability, protecting and defending confidential information and trade secrets must be at the top of the priority list for any organization. In May 2022, in Appian v. Pegasystems, a jury awarded likely the largest sum in the history of Virginia state court proceedings, finding that Pegasystems was liable for $2 billion-plus in damages to Appian for planting a corporate spy at Appian for over 10 years…. While the facts of the Appian case are not particularly unusual, the measure of damages is quite stunning.
Editor’s Note: Dean A. Pelletier of Pelletier Law, LLC co-authored this article with Erik Weibust.
Legal, technology, business, and academic professionals currently are debating whether an invention autonomously generated by artificial intelligence (AI) should be patentable in the United States and elsewhere. Some proponents of patentability argue that if AI, by itself, is not recognized as an inventor, then AI owners will lack protection for AI-generated inventions and AI innovation, commercialization, and investment (collectively, AI innovation) will be inhibited as a result. Some of those proponents further argue that, without patent protection as an option, AI owners increasingly will opt for trade secret protection, which by design reduces public disclosure of corresponding inventions and, as such, still will inhibit AI innovation. Some opponents of patentability, on the other hand, argue that patenting AI-generated inventions will promote those inventions and discourage human-generated inventions, thereby reducing human innovation and ultimately competition, because patent ownership will become concentrated, or more concentrated, in fewer entities—in particular, large, well-funded entities.
“The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help,” said President Ronald Reagan during a press conference on August 12, 1986. This is one of President Reagan’s most often quoted quips, and for a reason. The Government can certainly help people in times of need, but it can also be a scary bureaucracy, particularly when it shows up unannounced and uninvited. Fast forward 31 years and the 12 most terrifying words in the English language for any business should be: “I’m from China, and my company would like to partner with yours.”
At this moment, there is a fellow riding a bus in London who will determine the fate of your secrets. To be more precise, he’s on the Clapham bus; but he has no name. In fact, he’s a fictional character originally imagined by 19th Century journalist Walter Bagehot, who thought that “public opinion” was best described as the “opinion of the bald-headed man at the back of the omnibus.” The idea was picked up by the English courts as a metaphor for the “reasonable person” standard that is applied in all sorts of cases, from criminal to personal injury to contract interpretation. It also has special application to trade secrets, which we’ll get to in a minute.