Practical Implications of the New U.S. Trade Secret Act

Trade Secret Law

Last week President Obama signed into law the Defend Trade Secrets Act (“DTSA”) of 2016, creating the first-ever U.S. federal law providing civil remedies for misappropriation of trade secrets. The law became effective immediately, with serious implications for domestic and foreign companies selling goods or services in the United States.

In the U.S., trade secret theft was already prohibited by civil laws in every state and by federal criminal law in the Economic Espionage Act (“EEA”) of 1996. However, proponents of the DTSA had argued a federal law was needed to bring greater uniformity to civil trade secret actions and provide new tools to combat the growing threat posed by the theft of trade secrets. Continue reading

Trade Secrets and Employee Mobility in the U.S. and Asia

In 2010, Hewlett-Packard sued its former CEO for threatened misappropriation of trade secrets, after he took a position as President of Oracle. In 2012, Taiwan’s Acer, Inc. sued its former CEO for breach of a non-competition agreement after he quit and took a top position at Lenovo. And last month, criminal charges were filed against five employees of Taiwan’s HTC Corp., for allegedly conspiring to form a competing company using secrets stolen from HTC.

Employers often spend considerable resources recruiting, hiring and training key talent, only to face potential disaster when those trusted employees quit to join a competitor, often taking sensitive files on their way out the door. Even if they don’t act in bad faith, departing employees carry critical, confidential information inside their heads, which can’t be deleted. Fortunately, various remedies may be available for the former employer, from confidentiality and non-competition agreements, to lawsuits for actual or threatened misappropriation of trade secrets and the doctrine of inevitable disclosure.

But there’s a conflict. Employers have a legitimate interest in preventing misappropriation of trade secrets, while employees have a legitimate interest in utilizing knowledge and skills gained through work experience and working for employers of their choosing. Courts and lawmakers have long struggled to establish a balance between those competing interests. Below is a general overview of relevant laws and practices in the U.S. and Asia. Continue reading

Battling Trade Secret Theft in Taiwan

Here we go again. Last week, police detained three employees of Taiwanese smartphone-maker HTC, raided their homes and offices and seized their computers and cellphones to search for evidence, as HTC is accusing them of stealing sensitive technology to use in competition with HTC in China.

The three men – a vice president of product design, director of R&D, and senior designer – are accused of stealing secrets relating to HTC’s Sense 6.0 smartphones, which are scheduled for launch later this year. While the investigation is just beginning, reports have accused the three of collaborating with officials in Chengdu, China to form a competing smartphone company in China using the secrets stolen from HTC. They are also accused of defrauding HTC out of more than US$650,000, by use of forged documents, apparently to raise capital for their new venture.

Taiwan has seen similar cases before. In 2012, the nation’s second largest LCD panel-maker, AU Optronics (AUO), sued two of its former high-level executives for stealing trade secrets, which they took to their new employer, a major competitor in China. In 2011, Taiwan IC-design company, MediaTek, sued a former employee for stealing secrets and sharing them with his new employer. And, most famously, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC) battled with its Chinese rival, Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp. (SMIC), for almost a decade over allegations that SMIC poached numerous employees, who stole critical information that SMIC used to illegally manufacture competing products. Continue reading

Patent v. Trade Secret: Which is better?

A few weeks ago, Taiwan’s second largest LCD panel-maker, AU Optronics (AUO), accused two of its former executives of selling AUO’s valuable manufacturing secrets to China’s second largest panel-maker, China Star Optoelectronics. AUO sued and Taiwan’s authorities launched a criminal investigation, but the former workers have both accepted employment with China Star and now AUO will presumably face a tough battle to prevent its competitor from using its secrets.

Some may wonder, if the secrets were so valuable why didn’t AUO patent them? After all, patents – not trade secrets – seem to make all the big headlines and manufacturing processes are patentable in most countries, provided they meet the basic requirements for patentability.

The answer is that patents tend to capture more glory than trade secrets, but each method of protection has distinct advantages and disadvantages. Neither is superior in all cases. A prudent company will choose one method or the other, in each particular case, based on a careful analysis of various factors. Continue reading

Trade Secret Litigation in Taiwan

One of my former employers in Taiwan lost several employees to a competitor. Before leaving, the employees downloaded numerous files of sensitive financial information which they took to their new employer and used to try to steal our customers. We notified the authorities, the police launched a raid on the new employer, searched their computers, discovered the stolen data and another trade secrets battle had just begun.

Such cases are common; they’re also notoriously challenging. In Taiwan, the Trade Secrets Act prohibits the unlawful misappropriation, disclosure or use of trade secrets. Trade secrets are defined as business or technical information that is not known to the public, derives value from its secrecy, and is the subject of reasonable measures taken by its owner to protect its secrecy.

If trade secrets are unlawfully acquired, used or disclosed, the Act authorizes a civil suit for injunctive relief or damages. However, the basic measure for damages is plaintiff’s lost profits or defendant’s unlawful gains, both of which can be hard to prove. Additionally, Taiwan’s discovery procedures are practically non-existent, so it can be difficult proving knowledge and use of the secrets by the company receiving the secrets. Without that, all one has is a potential case against the individuals and no real proof of damages. Continue reading

Protecting Trade Secrets

As reported in the Wall Street Journal, notoriously secretive Apple Inc. was forced to divulge many diverse, and fascinating, trade secrets in its closely-watched litigation with Samsung (now in jury deliberation). Witnesses were compelled to testify concerning Apple’s development of the iPhone and iPad, its marketing budget and other sensitive matters, including – ironically – measures taken to protect the confidentiality of its trade secrets.

Unlike patents, a trade secret cannot gain protection through registration, but only through reasonable efforts to maintain its secrecy. For Apple, such efforts included “locking down” one floor in a building and installing cameras and keycard readers to ensure that Project Purple, their code name for development of the iPhone, would remain confidential. Team members were recruited only from within the company and were only told the nature of the project after they had joined the team.

While few of us deal with trade secrets of that magnitude, virtually every successful company has some commercially valuable information that derives its value from not being widely known. In a future blog post, we will address judicial, legislative and administrative issues relating to trade secrets, but this post concerns practical measures that should be considered to protect the confidentiality of trade secrets. Continue reading