How intellectual property rights helped America fight COVID-19

Decades of expensive and risky research projects have paved the way for today’s breakthroughs

When COVID-19 came ashore, glaring gaps in the government’s pandemic preparedness became painfully obvious. Everything from inadequate stockpiles of personal protective equipment to confusing and uncoordinated guidance regarding closures hampered our early response.

But while the government floundered, America’s research scientists sprang into action. Moderna actually invented its vaccine mere weeks after the virus was genetically sequenced in January — though of course, it took months of clinical trials to prove the vaccine was safe and 94% effective.

Now, tens of millions of Americans have been vaccinated, and the end of the pandemic is in sight. The credit belongs to strong intellectual property protections, as they enabled scientists to move quickly and raise ample funding for vaccine research.

As a post-pandemic world nears — and we begin to prepare for future pandemics — bolstering America’s IP infrastructure will help equip us for whatever challenges lie ahead.

Decades of expensive and risky research projects have paved the way for today’s breakthroughs. Over the last 10 years alone, drug companies invested more than $1.5 trillion on global pharmaceutical research. And some of that went toward developing the technologies underpinning the leading COVID-19 vaccines.

Notably, that includes mRNA technology. mRNA directs our bodies to produce proteins. And for nearly three decades, researchers have posited that they could use synthetic mRNA to guide the production of proteins that help treat specific diseases.

When COVID-19 started spreading, pharmaceutical company researchers were actively working on mRNA vaccines for the flu, rabies, and Zika. The pandemic necessitated a shift in priorities — and within weeks, Moderna, a small biotech in Massachusetts, and BioNTech, a small biotech in Germany that had partnered with Pfizer a few years prior, began working on mRNA vaccines that essentially instruct cells to create a harmless version of the “spike” protein found on the surface of the coronavirus.

This, in turn, triggers an immune response, which produces antibodies and teaches our body how to fight off future infection. The FDA granted emergency use authorization to the mRNA vaccines from BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna in December.

The fight against deadly diseases won’t end with COVID-19, of course.

Fortunately for us, America remains at the forefront of the global biopharmaceutical landscape. America is home to less than 5% of the world’s population but roughly half of all international pharmaceutical R&D spending.

That’s largely because of strong IP protections. These protections, including patents, give innovators a fair opportunity to recoup their investment costs before generics firms can manufacture copycat medicines. It takes years to develop a new medicine, conduct clinical studies, and navigate regulatory review. And it costs $2.6 billion, on average, to bring a new drug to market.

Patent protections make it possible for companies to chase state-of-the-art ideas. Ultimately, if a drug maker wants to stay in business, it’s imperative they manufacture innovative products that provide considerable benefit to patients. Those are the types of products that end up changing the world for the better — just like mRNA vaccines are doing right now.

Yet, inexplicably, some have proposed weakening — or outright dismantling — these critical protections. On the home front, these attacks have come from Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill.

It’s not an accident that the overwhelming majority of drugs are developed in countries with strong IP rights. Quite simply, there would be no COVID-19 vaccines without them. America’s pharmaceutical companies delivered the greatest breakthroughs in modern history precisely because our ecosystem incentivizes firms to pursue cutting-edge research.

When the next pandemic arrives, we will have no hope of defeating it if we weaken the one industry that’s best prepared to develop innovative treatments.

Mercantile interests are behind India’s and South Africa’s high-minded talk about helping the poor.

Covid won’t be the last disease humans need to fight. If we expect private companies to create treatments—and experience shows that they do it better than governments—countries need to protect the incentive to spend billions of dollars on a yearslong R&D process....

The U.S. has focused on China’s strategic plan to grab leadership in the most important fields of innovation, including artificial intelligence, 5G telecommunications, robotics, and quantum computing. But even the Justice Department’s recent sweeping indictment of Huawei Technologies Co. looks like a convenience store holdup compared to what could happen to the world’s storehouse of secret patent applications in Geneva...

The Defend Trade Secrets Act came into effect a year ago, for the first time giving trade secret holders the option of filing misappropriation claims in US federal courts. Its launch has been smooth, calming initial fears about potential abuse of its ex parte seizure provisions. The traditional state law system for enforcement remains intact, and is the preferred forum for localised disputes. But for cases involving actors at the national or international level the new platform provides clear advantages, and over 300 complaints have been filed. The DTSA's whistleblower protections may have been weakened by a court decision that refused to dismiss an action against a reporting employee. But in general there have been few surprises, with federal courts interpreting and applying the new law consistently. Major issues remain for clarification, chiefly the extent to which the DTSA will apply to acts of misappropriation occurring outside the US

Published in the George Mason Law Review, Volume 23, Number 4, Pages 1045-1078

Civil claims for trade secret misappropriation have always been grounded on state law, with only limited access to federal courts. That would change with the Defend Trade Secrets Act (S.1890) now pending in Congress as an amendment to the Economic Espionage Act. The proposed law enjoys broad industry and bipartisan political support, and was favorably reported out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on January 28. Most of the focus to this point has been on the need for a federal option when misappropriation occurs across state or national borders. But at the recent hearing a new amendment was proposed and accepted that would have an impact well beyond the original legislation. Suggested by Senators Patrick Leahy and Chuck Grassley, this part of the law would provide immunity under federal and state law to whistleblowers who confidentially report suspected illegal activity to the authorities.

The idea for this proposal originated with a draft article, Tailoring a Public Policy Exception to Trade Secret Protection, recently posted by Professor Peter Menell of the UC Berkeley School of Law. Professor Menell was confronting what should be a rather obvious issue: how do we support and encourage the private disclosure to government of needed information about possible wrongdoing, while recognizing the legitimate secrecy interests of business owners? It turns out that current law does not provide a clear answer, and this has negative consequences for whistleblowers and law enforcement.

Although an exception of sorts exists for personal disclosure of trade secrets in the public interest, it is expressed in vague terms that require a balancing of interests in the context of case-specific facts. For example, the Restatement (Third) of Unfair Competition § 40, comment c, states that “a privilege to disclose another’s trade secret depends upon the circumstances of the particular case, including the nature of the information, the purpose of the disclosure, and the means by which the actor acquired the information.” You might imagine that an employee, discovering evidence of corporate wrongdoing, should be comfortably protected by this principle when taking that evidence in confidence to the government. But you would be wrong.

In cases where the whistleblower has reported illegal activity through a qui tam action under the False Claims Act, 31 USC § 3729, some companies have reacted by asserting claims against the former employee for having misappropriated the very secrets that made the action possible. Claims have even been filed against the whistleblower’s attorneys for their part in their client’s alleged violation of a standard nondisclosure agreement. Arguments against applying a public interest exception include that the former employee took too much information, or should have reported their concerns in some other way. In any event, the limited case law and ambiguous formulation of the exception expose potential whistleblowers not only to the expense of litigation but also to its inherent personal stress.

And the risk of litigation is only one of many negative consequences that can result from reporting internal evidence of wrongdoing. As Professor Menell explains, studies show that whistleblowers frequently suffer job loss or demotion, personal shunning or blacklisting. This affects their finances, their families and their health. As one researcher put it, “the surprising part is not that most employees do not talk; it is that some talk at all.”

When employees know of illegal activity but are too scared to come forward, the public suffers. The insider typically is in a unique position to provide the evidence, which then remains walled up within the organization. On the other hand, businesses have a compelling need, particularly in the modern information economy, to protect their legitimate trade secrets from exposure, and sometimes whistleblowers are wrong, driven by self-interest. But at the moment there is no reliable way to balance and protect all these interests by ensuring that the relevant information can get to the officials who can consider it in confidence and make a decision on whether to proceed.

The Leahy-Grassley amendment appears to do this well, adopting what Professor Menell calls a “sealed disclosure/trusted intermediary” approach. Specifically, the amendment would rephrase 18 USC § 1833(2) (defining exceptions to the EEA) to provide that a person may not be held criminally or civilly liable for disclosure of a trade secret, if the disclosure is made (a) in confidence to a government official or to an attorney and (b) for the sole purpose of “reporting or investigating a suspected violation of law.” Immunity would also apply for disclosures made in a complaint or other filing, but only if done under seal. Nondisclosure agreements presented to employees or contractors must contain a notice of the immunity, at least by reference to the company’s relevant policy document. (Failure to provide the notice will forfeit the right to recover attorneys fees or enhanced damages against the employee under the DTSA.)

Significantly – and this point was emphasized by Senator Dianne Feinstein at the January 28 hearing – the amendment would not protect any otherwise wrongful behavior of the employee, such as hacking a computer system in violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

If the amendment survives and becomes law, it is not likely to create substantial new burdens or risks for employers. Statutory notice provisions have been required in employee NDAs for decades, as a result of state laws protecting the rights of individual inventors. Recent action by federal agencies like the NLRB and SEC have signaled that employee contracts must expressly confirm the individual’s right to share and report certain kinds of information. And although there is always some incremental risk when secret data is provided to the government, experience has shown it to be manageable.

The benefit to the public of this new approach could be profound. Government plays a central role in the modern economy, and can only enforce rules affecting safety, public health and financial integrity when it has access to information about what might be going wrong. Whistleblowers are usually the best source of this information, but they will almost never come forward if they face the risk of being sued for violating obligations of confidentiality. The DTSA whistleblower amendment provides a sensible answer: a safe harbor for disclosures in confidence to the government.

The Defend Trade Secrets Act (S.1890) would for the first time allow trade secret plaintiffs to file their cases directly in federal court. The proposed law was favorably reported out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Jan. 28, but with an important amendment protecting the right of employees to change jobs. Specifically, the bill requires that there be evidence of threatened misappropriation to justify an injunction putting limits on what an ex-employee can do. Although some might see this as reinforcing some states’ (particularly California’s) rejection of the “inevitable disclosure doctrine,” its practical effect instead should be to reframe the discussion away from that abstract doctrine and toward the kind of evidence necessary to prove a threat.

Forty-seven states have adopted the Uniform Trade Secrets Act. The injunction provisions of the UTSA permit a court to enjoin “actual or threatened misappropriation” of a trade secret. In 1995, the Seventh Circuit decided Pepsico v. Redmond,[1] approving a temporary injunction against a senior marketing executive, who had lied about his future plans, from starting work in the same position for a direct competitor. The court explained that the UTSA allowed an injunction when the “defendant’s new employment will inevitably lead him to rely on the plaintiff’s trade secrets.” This abstract phrase, detached from the facts of the case, came to be known as the “inevitable disclosure doctrine.” And because it was assumed to mean that employees could be enjoined merely because of how much they knew, it was widely condemned within California and other jurisdictions where policy and law strongly favor of mobility of labor.

“Inevitable disclosure” as an alternative to proving “threatened misappropriation” was rejected with strident language in Whyte v. Schlage Lock.[2] But in Central Valley General Hospital v. Smith,[3] another California court considered the question that Whyte had left unanswered: what evidence would be necessary to infer a “threat” under the UTSA. It concluded that while merely knowing the secret information was not enough, courts could intervene, for example, if the defendant had previously misappropriated trade secrets, or intended to misappropriate, or had refused to return confidential materials. In other words, bad behavior could provide the necessary inference of a threat.

In other states, where courts were presented with facts similar to Pepsico — that is, where the defendant had behaved in a way that made it unlikely he could be trusted — injunctions were sometimes issued, and judges called what they were doing an application of “inevitable disclosure.” See, e.g., Barilla America Inc. v. Wright.[4] As a result, commentators gradually settled into using the phrase without closely inquiring how it was being applied, and dividing jurisdictions according to whether they embraced or rejected “inevitable disclosure,” without questioning its meaning. California and a few other states were said to have rejected the doctrine, while many others had accepted it. But even in the states where it was accepted, judges almost always applied it only in cases where there was some evidence of bad behavior. See, e.g., Bimbo Bakeries USA Inc. v. Botticella.[5]

In other words, a false conflict had been created, and the evil that the Whyte court had railed against was mostly a phantom menace. But because the received wisdom was that inevitable disclosure could restrain someone from taking a new job without any evidence to support the inference of a threat, opponents concluded that employee mobility was protected only in California or in other states that had rejected the “doctrine.” And so when the DTSA was proposed last year, using precisely the same injunction language as the UTSA, they expressed concern that it might allow federal judges sitting in those jurisdictions to ignore state court rulings and apply the inevitable disclosure doctrine to enjoin an employee from taking a new job only because they knew too much. This was true even though the DTSA was expressly non-preemptive and had added language prohibiting an injunction that would “prevent a person from accepting an offer of employment under conditions that avoid actual or threatened misappropriation.”

After the Judiciary Committee held its hearing on the DTSA in early December, we continued to hear concern that this language would not be sufficient to protect employees from “inevitable disclosure” injunctions. Stanford Professor Mark Lemley and I then suggested a different approach, one that would direct federal judges to determine the existence of a threat based on the employee’s behavior rather than on what he or she knew. In the recently approved “substitute” bill, new language proposed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., prohibits any injunction against “entering into an employment relationship” and requires that “conditions placed on such employment shall be based on evidence of threatened misappropriation and not merely on the information the person knows.”

Other amendments to the DTSA have also improved it, including bringing the limitations and enhanced damages provisions into line with the UTSA, tightening up the already strict requirements for an ex parte seizure order, and creating a new and important exception to protect whistleblowers who need to disclose confidential information in order to report a crime to the authorities. But in terms of widespread impact on the greatest number of trade secret cases, the Feinstein amendment stands out, because it would establish a national standard reflecting the value of employee mobility. Rather than arguing about abstractions or labels, and without affecting any state law or policy on noncompete agreements, courts will apply the statutory language that allows injunctions against threatened misappropriation, focusing on the quality of evidence needed to prove a threat.

In the process, we may have banished the ghost of inevitable disclosure.

[1] 54 F.3d 1262 (7th Cir. 1995). [2]101 Cal. App. 4th (2002). [3]162 Cal. App. 4th 501 (2008). [4]2002 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 12773, *25-26 (S.D. Iowa 2001). [5]613 F.3d 102, 118 (3d Cir. 2010).

Last Thursday the Senate Judiciary Committee favorably voted out the Defend Trade Secrets Act (“DTSA”), which would amend the Economic Espionage Act (“EEA”) to give trade secret plaintiffs the option of filing civil claims for misappropriation directly in federal court. The vote reflected broad bipartisan support (there are now 27 cosponsors in the Senate) and followed a substantive hearing on December 2 at which I had the privilege to testify. Since that time a number of senators engaged in discussions about how to improve the legislation. The result was a series of amendments, all of which have been adopted. Because the bill is likely to proceed quickly at this point, it would be useful to describe what has changed and what those changes could mean for practitioners and companies.

The notable amendments generally fall into four categories: (1) harmonizing with existing standards under the Uniform Trade Secrets Act (“UTSA”); (2) tightening up the process for preventive seizure of secrets; (3) ensuring that injunctions do not unreasonably restrain employee mobility; and (4) providing an exception for whistleblowers who disclose confidential information in order to report a crime to the authorities. The first three of these are laid out in a “Substitute” for S.1890, and the fourth is described in a separate amendment proposed by Senators Patrick Leahy and Chuck Grassley.

Bringing the DTSA in closer alignment with familiar provisions of the UTSA, the amendments have slightly changed the definition of a trade secret. The EEA had previously required that qualifying information not be known or readily ascertainable to “the public,” while the UTSA had used the phrase “persons who can obtain economic value from its disclosure or use.” While it was never clear whether this difference would actually matter when applied in litigation, the UTSA formulation has now been adopted, so that the two laws are congruent. (Some still point to the different list of examples of protectable information in the UTSA and EEA definitions, but this has never been shown to make any difference in the broad meaning of the common basic term “information.”)

The amendments have also changed the term of the statute of limitations from five years to three. Although a number of states have designated longer periods (from four to six years), this brings the DTSA into line with the UTSA as it was originally proposed. In the same vein, the enhanced damages provision, which had allowed a punitive assessment up to three times the compensatory award, has been adjusted to match the provisions of the UTSA at twice the amount of compensatory damages.

SEIZURE PROVISIONS

The ex parte seizure provisions have been substantially tightened, providing more assurance that this remedy will not be abused. First, the bill now expressly refers to seizure as available only in “extraordinary circumstances.” Second, an ambiguity identified by Senator Whitehouse at the December hearing has been resolved by clarifying that the target of the seizure must be in “actual” possession of the trade secret and property to be seized. Third, access to the seized material is more limited: only federal law enforcement can perform the seizure, with assistance as necessary from state authorities and an independent technical expert, but the applicant is barred. And following the seizure, the court may have the material sorted by a special master who, like the technical expert, must be under confidentiality restrictions. Fourth, in issuing its order the court must direct when the seizure may be carried out, and whether force may be used to access locked areas. Finally, in a new section the bill requires the Federal Judicial Center to develop “best practices” for seizure and handling of electronically stored information.

MOVING ON FROM “INEVITABLE DISCLOSURE”

One of the most interesting and potentially impactful provisions of the amendments concerns the preservation of employee mobility. Recognizing the critical importance of preventive relief to a right that can be so easily destroyed, the UTSA has always permitted injunctions against “threatened misappropriation,” and the same language is used in the DTSA. But because the DTSA would establish a national standard, some expressed fears that the “inevitable disclosure doctrine,” which has been expressly rejected in some states, might be used by federal judges to block an employee from taking a new job. The draft bill had tried to address this concern with a proviso that no injunction could “prevent a person from accepting an offer of employment under conditions that avoid actual or threatened misappropriation,” but this did not quiet the controversy.

To understand the nature of the dispute we need to wind back the clock to 1995, when the Seventh Circuit issued its decision in Pepsico v. Redmond, 54 F.3d 1262 (7th Cir. 1995), affirming a five-month injunction against a former marketing executive who had lied about his plans to take an identical position with another company that was about to launch a directly competitive product. Although the court had emphasized the executive’s bad behavior, it also summarized that “defendant’s new employment will inevitably lead him to rely on the plaintiff’s trade secrets.” Commentators promptly wrenched this phrase from its context and warned that Pepsico could be used to justify enjoining someone from taking a job just because of what he or she knew. This is how the so-called “inevitable disclosure doctrine” was born.

Having (mis)construed Pepsico this way, it was easy for some to make it a target, raising the alarm that “inevitable disclosure” was the equivalent of a post-hoc judicially-imposed non-compete agreement. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the backlash was particularly strong in California, where employees are protected by a robust public policy against restrictive covenants. In Whyte v. Schlage Lock, 101 Cal. App. 4th (2002), an intermediate appellate court issued a blistering condemnation of the doctrine and flatly declared it unacceptable under California law. It did this in response to the plaintiff’s argument that the doctrine should be available as an “alternative” to proving “threatened misappropriation.” Just what kind of evidence might be enough to establish a threat under the UTSA was not addressed. However, that question was answered several years later in another appellate decision, Central Valley General Hospital v. Smith, 162 Cal. App. 4th 501 (2008). The court said that evidence of bad behavior, like a prior misappropriation, an intention to misappropriate, or a refusal to return confidential material, would be enough to supply the inference.

In the meantime, however, the ideological battle lines had been drawn, and the forces mustering against inevitable disclosure, reinforced by many academic and popular articles, were determined to stamp it out if possible, or at least to protect their own jurisdiction from infection. The fervor of the debate apparently distracted everyone from critically examining what “inevitable disclosure” meant, or how it was actually being applied in places that didn’t have a reflexive opposition to it. It turns out that the doctrine was almost never used as the opponents assumed, that is where the only threat indicator was how much the employee knew. In fact, in those cases judges typically explained their denials by reminding the plaintiff that if all this information had been so critically important they could have demanded that the employee sign a non-compete agreement.

Following last December’s hearing, and in the wake of continuing concerns over the relevant DTSA language, I reached out to my friend Mark Lemley, professor at Stanford Law School. Mark and I had worked together before on issues relating to California’s “high velocity” labor market, and after some discussion about what appeared to be this false conflict over the inevitable disclosure doctrine, we suggested to Senate staff that the issue could better be reframed around the kind and quality of evidence that should be required – under the UTSA or the DTSA – to prove “threatened misappropriation,” and that the inquiry should focus on the employee’s behavior, not merely on how much they knew.

Ultimately, Senator Dianne Feinstein proposed the relevant portion of the DTSA amendments, which now allows an order against threatened misappropriation, provided that it not “prevent a person from entering into an employment relationship, and that conditions placed on such employment shall be based on evidence of threatened misappropriation and not merely on the information the person knows.” (In a belt-and-suspenders approach, the DTSA also includes a directly related amendment proposed by Senator John Cornyn that the order may not “otherwise conflict with an applicable State law prohibiting restraints on the practice of a lawful profession, trade, or business.”)

The new language on threatened misappropriation has at least two very positive effects. First, it makes express the apparent consensus from the courts that “threatened” misappropriation may not be established merely by the importance of the information that someone knows. This makes sense not only as a matter of public policy but also of evidence law. Second, it relieves us from the energy-draining debate over “inevitable disclosure,” which was pretty much a straw man that people loved to punch. Courts will not have to consider whether a jurisdiction accepts or rejects this abstract “doctrine,” but instead will ask: what is the actual evidence from which we should conclude that this person (or their new employer) can’t be trusted to honor the integrity of the plaintiff’s trade secrets? Outcomes in particular cases should not be substantially different.

WHISTLEBLOWER PROTECTION

A second major amendment was offered separately by Senators Leahy and Grassley, addressing a new, and in my opinion long neglected, question: how do we assure that employees and contractors who come upon evidence of illegal activity, but who are constrained by nondisclosure agreements from communicating those facts, can safely speak to their lawyers and to law enforcement officials? One might think that this question would already have been reliably answered by now, but it hasn’t been. In a wide-ranging and thoughtful on the subject, Tailoring a Public Policy Exception to Trade Secret Protection, Professor Peter Menell of the UC Berkeley School of Law explores not only the sparse, murky, and sometimes contradictory legal authority, but also the psychology of whistleblowing and the importance of a clear “safe harbor” for those who are thinking of reporting wrongdoing. As he notes, “[t]he same routine non-disclosure agreements that are essential to safeguarding trade secrets can be and are used to chill those in the best position to reveal illegal activity.” As a practical matter, employees and contractors face a stark dilemma, where the upside is a clear conscience (and possibly a reward for uncovering fraud) but the downside can involve painful and relentless retaliation as well as personal, financial, legal, and professional risk. Insulating the whistleblower from costly trade secret exposure serves larger societal interests in law enforcement, tax compliance, and surfacing and deterring securities fraud and fraud against the government.

Yet because of the difficulty of enforcing trade secrets once they leak, companies risk potentially significant losses if employees or contractors mistakenly disclose legitimate trade secrets—i.e., those that do not reveal illegal conduct. Peter’s article provided a balanced and effective solution to this dilemma that protects whistleblowers without jeopardizing disclosure of legitimate trade secrets. The proposed safe harbor insulates whistleblowers and their counsel from trade secret liability for disclosing trade secret information in confidence to government officials or as part of a lawsuit alleging retaliation by an employer provided that the information is filed under seal. (The federal Trade Secrets Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1905, generally prohibits governmental employees from disclosing trade secrets.) The proposed statutory exception to trade secret liability provides clear assurance to potential whistleblowers that they do not violate their NDAs merely by consulting legal counsel regarding reporting allegedly illegal conduct to a responsible government official through a confidential channel. In addition, this safe harbor insulates lawyers advising potential whistleblowers about their options and serving as conduits for presenting evidence of allegedly illegal conduct to the government. The efficacy of the safe harbor is enhanced by requiring that NDAs prominently include notice of the law reporting safe harbor to ensure that those with knowledge of illegal conduct are aware of this important public policy limitation on NDAs and exercise due care with trade secrets in reporting such activity. A

fter Peter’s article appeared just as the DTSA was gaining momentum in the fall, the Senate staff reached out to him to help craft appropriate language. The Leahy/Grassley amendment provides immunity under federal or state law against any claim for violation of an individual’s nondisclosure obligations for disclosure, made in confidence, to (a) an attorney or government official, for the purpose of reporting or investigating a violation of law, or (b) a filing made under seal in a lawsuit “or other proceeding.” In order to ensure that employees (a term that also includes contractors) know about their rights, employers are required to give an appropriate notice in the nondisclosure agreement (as is often done now with state inventor statutes), although this can be a reference to the company’s separate policy document. A failure to comply with the notice provision would block any award of attorneys’ fees or enhanced damages against an employee under the DTSA. Significantly – and this point was emphasized by Senator Feinstein at the hearing on January 28 – the whistleblower protection would not extend to any otherwise improper acts by the employee, such as hacking information in violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

CONCLUSION

The DTSA in its current form is a strong bill, meeting its original objective of giving plaintiffs access to federal courts, which are better equipped to handle cases of interstate or international misappropriation of trade secrets. In my opinion, all reasonable objections have been adequately addressed, and there are sufficient protections built in against abuse. Moreover, passage of this bill would substantially improve the environment for both plaintiffs and defendants, by making trade secret litigation more predictable, establishing a national standard for issues like “threatened misappropriation,” and striking the right balance of interests to promote responsible efforts by whistleblowers to report possible violations of law.

If you have strategic responsibility for intellectual property, then you may already feel the ground shifting beneath you. Patents have held sway during our professional lifetimes not only as a marker of innovation, but as the main way in which companies protect and exploit their competitive advantage. Not any more. Like an old style of dress, trade secrets are coming back into fashion and turning heads...

Why We Need a Federal Civil Claim for Trade Secret Misappropriation

Trade secret theft has been a federal crime since 1996, covered by the Economic Espionage Act (“EEA”). But civil misappropriation claims remain limited to state court filings under common law or local variants of the Uniform Trade Secrets Act (“UTSA”). Calls for federal jurisdiction have grown with the increasing importance of information as a business asset and with the emergence of technology that makes theft of these assets almost infinitely easier. Recent examples involving international actors have galvanized the business community to request a straightforward solution: amend the EEA to provide a federal option for private claims.

Several bills were introduced in the 113th Congress to accomplish this, and to authorize provisional remedies for seizure of relevant property to prevent secret technology from being transferred out of the jurisdiction. The 2014 legislation was not acted on before Congress adjourned. A revised version is pending now, the Defend Trade Secrets Act of 2015 (“DTSA”), reflected in identical House (H.R.3326) and Senate (S.1890) bills.

The approach of the DTSA is fairly simple: use existing language of the EEA where appropriate, such as the definition of a trade secret, and where other language is required to define the civil aspects, such as misappropriation and damages, use language taken from the UTSA. Indeed, the only meaningful departure from the UTSA is to add a section allowing ex parte seizures of the misappropriated property. But even that portion draws from established provisions of the Lanham Act, tightened up considerably from the 2014 bills in order to discourage abuse.

The DTSA has received virtually unanimous support from industry, and also enjoys unusually bipartisan political sponsorship, with 65 cosponsors in the House (45 Republican and 20 Democrat) and ten in the Senate (six Republican and four Democrat). The only organized opposition has come from a group of law professors who published an “open letter” in 2014 criticizing the previous draft legislation, and who have recently released another letter describing their concerns. Mainly, they argue that we don’t need federal legislation because state laws are uniform enough; that the seizure provisions are too broad; and that the DTSA would limit labor mobility by approving the so-called “inevitable disclosure doctrine.”

As I will explain below, on each of these points the professors are wrong, misled by incorrect assumptions or unjustified speculation. Indeed, in a recent journal article two of them have predicted that the legislation would unleash a never-seen-before class of commercial predator, the “trade secret troll,” who they claim would “roam free in a confused and unsettled environment, threatening or initiating lawsuits for the sole purpose of exacting settlement payments, just like patent trolls.”

This apocalyptic scenario is not only fanciful; it is absurd. While patents are exclusive rights that operate against the world, trade secrets provide no exclusivity and depend on a confidential relationship. The image of a “trade secret troll” may help draw attention to a political argument, but it is a myth, and deserves no serious consideration.

The reality of this legislation is simple and compelling. Giving trade secret owners the option to sue in federal court would fill a critical gap in effective enforcement of private rights against cross-border misappropriation that in the digital age has become too stealthy and quick to be dealt with predictably in state courts. The bills would accomplish this by effecting only very modest changes, relying heavily on existing laws and rules. The seizure provisions in particular are so narrowly drawn that only the most clearly aggrieved plaintiffs would risk invoking the procedure. Having no pre-emptive effect, the federal law would leave in place all relevant state laws and policies, including those relating to mobility of labor.

U.S. trade secret law emerged in the nineteenth century to accommodate the shift from agrarian and cottage production to larger-scale industry, in which the secrets of production would have to be shared with workers or with business partners. Court decisions sought to enforce the confidence placed in those who were given access to valuable information about machines, recipes and processes. At the core of every case was a confidential relationship. Protecting this trust, the courts explained, was a simple matter of enforcing morality in the marketplace.

The common law origins of trade secrets – in contrast to the federal patent statute – meant that the majority of cases were heard in state court. Even when a federal court took diversity or supplemental jurisdiction over a trade secret dispute, it applied the law of the state in which it sat. And at first there was little variation, with most states looking to the Restatement of Torts § 757 as a guide. But as industrial development continued through the middle of the twentieth century, legal foundations shifted, and the reporters of the Second Restatement dropped the subject completely.

Meanwhile, a school of thought had developed among commentators that trade secret law should be abolished altogether because it was inconsistent with, and therefore preempted by, federal patent law. This argument was famously rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court in Kewanee Oil Co. v. Bicron Corp., 416 U.S. 470 (1974). Two important public interests, the Court explained, were served by trade secret law: the “maintenance of standards of commercial ethics and the encouragement of invention.” Without guaranteed secrecy, businesses would be left to expensive self-help security measures that would disadvantage smaller competitors and discourage dissemination of information through sharing. And as a practical matter, there was no conflict between the two systems because they operate so differently: patent law is strong, providing an exclusive right “against the world;” while trade secret rights are “far weaker,” because they do not protect against reverse engineering or independent development.

With the Second Restatement’s decision not to treat the issue, some were concerned that trade secret law would become too fractured and inconsistent for companies which had been increasingly doing business across state lines. Therefore, in 1979 the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws issued the first of two versions of the UTSA, proposing harmonized rules on establishing and enforcing trade secret rights. Measured by adoption rates, the UTSA has been a great success, with 47 of the 50 states so far embracing it (New York is the leading holdout). However, measured by its objective of uniformity, the law has been a disappointment. Unlike the UCC, the UTSA has frequently been enacted with customized features.

A few examples will help illustrate the scope of the problem. California dropped the language requiring that a trade secret be not “readily ascertainable,” with the result that the defendant is required to specially plead that circumstance as an affirmative defense. Illinois also eliminated the “readily ascertainable” language, and it prohibits royalty injunction orders, sets a different limitations period and allows permanent injunctions. Idaho requires that computer programs carry a “copyright or other proprietary or confidential marking” to qualify for protection. Georgia limits protection of customer lists to physical embodiments, in effect allowing employees to appropriate such information in (human) memory. South Carolina’s version of the UTSA requires a court hearing an injunction request to consider “average rate of business growth” in determining a head start period, and prescribes very particular rules for discovery of trade secret information, even for local discovery in aid of an action pending in another jurisdiction.

When Congress considered the EEA in 1996, there was some discussion of adding a civil right of action, but this was deemed impractical in view of the need for swift legislative action. In the years since its enactment, the EEA has had a mixed record of success. As reported by one veteran prosecutor, the average of about eight prosecutions per year is a “languid pace” that probably has done little to create a deterrent effect. In part this may be due to a reluctance of victims to bring cases to the prosecutor, either because of a loss of control or Fifth Amendment effects on civil claims, or it may be due to a lack of resources or interest within the various offices of the U.S. Attorneys, who have discretion whether to accept qualifying cases.

Calls for a federal trade secret law with a private right of action had already begun before the EEA was passed. After it became law, a number of scholars noted the anomaly and suggested that, because the national economy had become primarily knowledge-based, and because even with the UTSA state law was far from uniform, a federal civil law should be enacted. More recent commentary, while continuing to emphasize the drawbacks of variations in state law, also has pointed out the economic advantages of federalization, particularly for small businesses, which rely more heavily on secrecy than on patenting, as well as the procedural advantages for trade secret owners, including national service of process.

The highly-publicized cyberattacks of recent years have exposed not only the precarious security of personal financial and health information, but also the vulnerability of American corporate secrets. Thirty years ago information security consisted mainly of guarding the photocopier and watching who went in and out the front door. Now, with the Internet connected to millions of smartphones, and with electronic storage devices the size of a coin, information assets (which account for over 80% of the value of U.S. public companies) can be moved quickly and silently across state and international borders. In that context, existing procedures at the state level seem impossibly quaint. If a case in Illinois requires testimony of a witness in California, the plaintiff has to petition its home court to authorize a deposition, and then file an action in California based on the Illinois order, to secure the required subpoena. During the weeks or months of this process, the witness could easily have left the country, with the secrets in her pocket.

In other words, the time-critical nature of interstate and international misappropriation of valuable digitized data requires an immediate and sophisticated response mechanism, and neither state law nor the EEA criminal framework provides a satisfactory solution. Federal courts, however, can provide the necessary resource. First, they will be operating under a single, national standard for trade secret misappropriation and a transparent set of procedural rules, offering predictability and ease of use. Second, they will provide nationwide service of process and a unified approach to discovery, enabling quick action by trade secret owners even when confronted with actors in multiple jurisdictions. Third, as a result of their extensive experience with complex cross-border litigation involving intellectual property, they will be able to resolve ex parte matters fairly and jurisdictional issues quickly and efficiently. Fourth, their generally more predictable discovery procedures will serve the legitimate needs of trade secret plaintiffs, who typically must develop most of the facts to prove their case through defendants and third parties.

In this context, the objections raised by the law professors are not convincing. First, it is not fair to describe existing state law as “coherent,” “robust and uniform,” so that U.S. businesses already enjoy “a high level of predictability.” The rhetoric does not obscure the reality of a patchwork of differing standards and rules – in some ways more divergent than before enactment of the UTSA – that necessarily creates friction and inefficiency for companies with interstate operations.

Second, while admitting that the current language on ex parte seizure is “more limited in scope” than the 2014 legislation (for example, only property “necessary to prevent the propagation or dissemination of the trade secret” can be seized), the professors think this tightening is not enough and that the provision “may still result in significant harm.” No evidence is provided, but only speculation that mere invocation of the procedure might cause small businesses to “capitulate,” and that the “chilling effect on innovation and job growth . . . could be profound.” Again, the reality could hardly be more different. The DTSA is loaded with limitations making seizure very difficult to achieve, and with liabilities making it prohibitively expensive to be wrong in asking for it. In the unusual case where the plaintiff has no substantial basis for the claim, the defendant will simply file an opposition, the seizure will be dissolved, and the plaintiff will pay for the harm. Surely the benefits of the DTSA are worth that occasional risk.

Third, the professors assert that new language, added to the DTSA to ensure that mobility of labor is respected, embraces the so-called “inevitable disclosure doctrine,” which they view as the equivalent of a judge-made noncompetition agreement. In fact, that “doctrine” is nothing more than a method of analysis under the common-sense UTSA provision allowing injunctions against “threatened misappropriation.” This method has been applied thoughtfully in a majority of jurisdictions, resulting in a wide range of conditional remedies, and has only rarely been applied in a way that stops anyone from taking a new job.

The DTSA is sorely needed to fill a gap in remedies available to U.S. businesses that now operate in an information-based, globalized economy. This is one of those instances where federal structures are required to address a critical set of interstate and international problems. The DTSA has been carefully constructed to deter and punish abuse. Using well-established definitions and norms, it provides a choice to file a familiar claim in an effective forum. And there is absolutely no danger that enacting this statute will generate some new form of “troll” behavior to this point unknown in trade secret law.

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