In 1994, the United States was winding up the Uruguay Round of trade negotiations leading to the establishment of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Tucked in among the toothbrush and rice tariffs was the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property. The TRIPS Agreement was seen as a breakthrough, setting common standards for protecting IP, including provisions on trade secrets that closely aligned with U.S. law. Twenty years later, I visited a friend at the WTO to find out what had actually been happening as a result of TRIPS. I was especially interested in what countries had done since 1994 to bring their national laws into harmony with the trade secret requirements. Because each member of the WTO was supposed to submit reports on its compliance, I asked about them. Yes, we have them, my friend told me. They were in boxes in the next room. But no one had ever read them. Just months before my visit, the European Commission had received an industry report lamenting the legal chaos facing companies that tried to enforce their trade secret rights in Europe. Although every one of the 27 member states of the EU was also a signatory to the TRIPS agreement, virtually none of them was in compliance. In response, the Commission issued a “Directive,” instructing all member states to (finally) harmonize some basic aspects of their trade secret laws.
We all talk about the importance of data as business assets, but when it comes to buying and selling the companies that own them, we seem not to pay much attention. My anecdotal survey reveals that colleagues who focus on mergers and acquisitions confess to a lack of focus on trade secrets. This may seem odd, even crazy, given the increasing percentage of industrial property represented by intangible assets—up from 17% in 1975 to 84% in 2015. The problem appears to start with the fact that secret information, no matter how central to the success of the business, is mysterious. Unlike the “registered rights” of patent, copyright and trademark, there are no government certificates defining secrets; and valuing them is hard. Add to that the imperative to get deals done faster and cheaper, and it’s easy to see how secrecy may have become the blind spot of transactional IP.
It seemed like a trade secret trifecta when Congress in 2011 passed the America Invents Act (AIA). Although the statute was aimed at patent reform, it made three helpful changes in how trade secrets are treated. First, companies could hold onto secret information about an invention without risking invalidation of their patents for failing to disclose the “best mode” of implementing it. Second, the “prior user right” that guarantees continuing use of a secret invention, even if someone else later patents it, was extended to cover all technologies. And third, the law would no longer deny a patent simply because the inventor had already commercialized the invention in a way that didn’t reveal it to the public. Or so we thought. That last change depended on how you read the legislation. The long-standing requirement that an invention could not be “on sale” or “in public use” more than a year before filing a patent application was still there. But Congress added a qualifier to 35 U.S.C. §102: there would be no patent if the invention had been “in public use, on sale, or otherwise available to the public . . . .”
In 2014, Elon Musk made Tesla’s patents available for anyone to use for free, stating that “technology leadership is not defined by patents.” Earlier this month, Musk announced again that he had released all of Tesla’s patents, promising the company “will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology.” Musk believes patents only serve “to stifle progress” and that by releasing his patents he can help get progress moving again—and that progress will somehow win the fight against climate change. But do patents stifle progress, and will releasing patents really have this result? Patents are a trade with a government. The inventor agrees to disclose the invention to the public in exchange for a limited exclusive right to the invention. No one else can make, use, sell or import the invention without the inventor’s permission. The public interest is served because the invention is publicly disclosed, so anyone can improve the invention and patent that advancement. And anyone can design around it and patent that invention. If the invention has commercial value, no doubt many people will jump in and do one or both.
It’s a challenge to resolve business disputes when emotions run high, which includes almost all trade secret cases. So, I was especially pleased when, in a hard-fought litigation where I had been appointed as a “referee” to resolve discovery disputes, both lawyers eventually reached out to tell me how much they appreciated my involvement in the case, which had settled. What was it about this variation on typical legal combat—where a private party is selected to rule on some important aspects—that they found so satisfying? First, they had saved their clients a lot of time, and probably money, compared to the cost of dealing with unpredictable court calendars. And second, they felt that the decisions they received were thoughtful, balanced and practical, reflecting an understanding of the relevant business environment.
The Utah IP Summit is sponsored by the Intellectual Property Section of the Utah State Bar. The IP Summit is a full day CLE conference hosted in Salt Lake City, Utah where participants attend presentations by leading national and local experts on the hottest topics facing IP attorneys today. For outdoor enthusiasts, the conference is immediately adjacent to the Wasatch…
Although every case had its own special facts reflecting unique personalities, technologies and business models, one necessary element was present in every single case. Somebody had done something stupid. And they still do. Sometimes it’s about what people do when getting ready to leave their job and go into competition. They brazenly solicit customers or foment discontent among the staff they want to recruit. They use the company’s computer system to research and prepare their business plan. They download thousands of confidential files they’re not supposed to have anyway, and then try to cover their tracks by using specialized software – I’m not making this up– called “Evidence Destroyer.”
It’s football season, so of course we should be talking about beer. Specifically, beer secrets. For fourteen years James Clark had an enviable job at Anheuser-Busch, where he had access to the brewer’s confidential recipes. For unexplained reasons he resigned. Instead of joining a competitor, he went to see a lawyer about planning a class action against his former employer for “intentionally overstating the alcohol content” of the company’s “malt beverages.”… Anheuser-Busch sued him for misappropriation of its secrets for making beer.
Andy Bitter, a former sports journalist covering the travails and triumphs of the Virginia Tech football team, was sued last month by his former employer, a local newspaper, for trade secret theft. According to the plaintiff Roanoke Times he was obligated by the company’s employee handbook to turn over all company property, and this necessarily included the Twitter account he had used to stay in touch with his 17,000+ followers… In spite of the mess it created, the Roanoke Times has reminded us of some important questions for industry in the information age. Who owns social media accounts? What role do they play in building competitive advantage? And how should companies manage their use?
Trade secret holders must take reasonable precautions to maintain the secrecy of their secrets, such as keeping such information on a “need-to-know” basis. Companies should have clear IP, confidentiality, and employment agreements describing which types of information are considered trade secrets. These agreements should also describe an employee’s responsibility for maintaining the secrecy of such information. In spite of reasonable precautions by a trade secret holder, bad actors may maliciously misappropriate trade secrets.
Sinovel encouraged him to leave AMSC, promising to pay him a million dollars over five years (along with an apartment, and, reportedly, a prostitute). His advance was only 15,000 euros, but it did the trick. Karabasevic resigned, but his supervisor asked him to stay on for a while, with full access to the company’s systems. This allowed him time to create a bootleg version of the AMSC controller software, and to transfer it to his future employer in China. This was the software that evaded the AMSC technicians’ diagnostic tools and allowed the windmills to keep turning when they should have turned off. It would be some months before the company learned about their former employee’s treachery, but in the meantime it had lost almost 90% of its revenue, shed a billion dollars in shareholder equity, and had to lay off 700 employees.
The Lex Machina report supports the notion that trade secret litigation has ramped up in U.S. district courts in the time since the passage of the DTSA. Between 2009 and 2016, trade secret suit filings generally remained within a range of 860 cases per year and 930 cases per year. In 2017, however, U.S. trade secret case filings saw an increase up to 1,134 cases filed. Through the first half of 2018, 581 trade secret cases have been filed, putting this year on pace to slightly exceed the number of trade secret cases filed in 2017.
Generally, a breach of confidence under English law does not give rise to criminal liability (and the recently implemented Trade Secrets Directive only addresses civil remedies for misappropriation of trade secrets). Sometimes the conduct giving rise to the breach may constitute an offense in its own right (for example an offense under the Computer Misuse Act 1990) but in the absence of such a scenario sanctions will be limited to inter partes remedies. However, as recently seen, if an order for inter partes relief is breached, criminal sanctions may still be imposed following a finding of contempt of court.
This is where the drama begins its teaching. Title Source believed its own narrative, in which it was a victim of HouseCanary’s breach… Why didn’t Title Source see the potential disaster when deciding whether to sue? The answer almost certainly lies in the emotional content of disputes where information has been shared between companies. The relationship starts, as it must, with declarations of trust on both sides. So when things start to go downhill, disappointment morphs into loathing and a sense of victimhood. Each side, anxious to see its own behavior as fully justified, develops a committed perspective.
Every year different groups provide rankings of patent prosecution law firms and a company’s patent count for the year. Patent law firms will tout their rankings based upon the number of filings at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) or the number of allowances they obtained for clients over the previous year. And companies will boast about their patent prowess based upon the size of their portfolios. But things are changing. Innovative algorithms and even diagnostic methods may be easier and more effectively protected by trade secret. Trade secret protection avoids the uncertainty of compliance with the vague patentability standard set forth by the Supreme Court.