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.
What follows is a selection of those decisions from the past year which, in my estimation, provide guideposts regarding important aspects of trade secret law and practice.
First, however, we should consider the recent efforts of The Sedona Conference Working Group 12 on Trade Secrets, a volunteer think tank of over 200 judges, attorneys and other professionals, who have produced a series of commentaries representing consensus views on various subjects. Because courts routinely cite to the Sedona Commentaries as authoritative, they represent a valuable resource for counsel. You can access the commentaries here. .
This is where every case begins. The information has to be a secret, meaning you can’t find it through public sources like the internet. The legal expression of this simple idea requires that the information not be generally known or “readily ascertainable” – that is, easy to discover – through “proper means.” In Masimo Corp. v. True Wearables, Inc., 2022 U.S. App. LEXIS 1923 at *12 (Jan. 24, 2022) (non-precedential), the Federal Circuit rejected in concept the argument that any publication of the claimed secret necessarily would destroy secrecy, regardless of the circumstances. Elaborating in dictum, the court explained that “the fact that the trade secret has been revealed in some publication somewhere does not necessarily compel a finding that the information cannot maintain its status as a trade secret for a party in an entirely different field from the one to which the publication was addressed.”
A particular species of trade secret consists of a “combination” of various bits of information, each of which might not separately be secret but which taken together form a unique whole. A simple example would be the recipe for a unique dish composed of certain amounts of commonly available foods and spices. However, it may be possible to deconstruct the combination and establish that its parts are so obvious and common that it cannot plausibly be claimed as a secret. This was the result for a bread recipe in Bimbo Bakeries USA, Inc. v. Sycamore, 39 F.4th 1250, 1259-64 (10th Cir. 2022) (analysis of “the individual elements of [plaintiff’s] compilation” showed that no reasonable jury could find it not generally known or readily ascertainable).
Closely related to the concept of secrecy is the requirement that the trade secret owner exercise “reasonable efforts under the circumstances” to protect the information that it claims as a trade secret. In effect, courts will not step in to help if the owner has failed to help itself with security measures that match the business risk. Under the old Restatement (First) of Torts definition of a trade secret, reasonable efforts was only one of six factors for a court to consider in deciding whether information should be treated as a trade secret. But both the UTSA and the DTSA specify it as a required element, along with secrecy and value. Even so, the early tendency of courts was to apply a rather forgiving standard, and seldom to dismiss a case on that basis. That inclination seems to have disappeared, with courts taking a more skeptical view of the measures claimed by plaintiffs as enhancing the security of their confidential information, which often consist of little more than a list of standard techniques used to protect the company’s IT systems. A good example of the more recent judicial attitude is the Second Circuit’s opinion in Turret Labs USA, Inc. v. CargoSprint, LLC, 2022 U.S. App. LEXIS 6070 at *7 (2nd Cir. March 9, 2022) (unpublished), affirming a trial court’s grant of summary judgment at 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 27838 at *16 (E.D.N.Y. February 12, 2021). Turret had developed a software program for use only by freight forwarders operating at airports, but licensed the product to airlines, in this case Lufthansa. CargoSprint was alleged to have obtained access through Lufthansa by falsely presenting itself as a freight forwarder, acquiring secret algorithms and other information it used to create a competing product. Turret alleged that Lufthansa had “protocols” in place to ensure proper access, but it did not recite what provisions of its license required the airline to apply them. It also alleged various network security measures such as servers in locked and monitored cages, with data in transit secured by encryption. But Turret had given full authority to Lufthansa to control access, without requiring it to do so. That basic surrender of control to a third party, the court explained, rendered irrelevant all of the technical measures that had been applied to secure its IT system.
To similar effect, see Altman Stage Lighting, Inc. v. Smith, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 22699 at *12-13 (S.D.N.Y. Feb. 8, 2022), where the plaintiff alleged in its complaint that it had told its engineers working on the relevant project that they were not to discuss it with anyone else. Noting that the pleading was “silent as to any security measures or confidentiality agreements,” the court dismissed the DTSA claim.
One of the unique aspects of trade secret law, in comparison to other forms of intellectual property, is that the boundaries of the right are not specified in a government-issued grant. As a result, a preliminary – and usually consequential – question in every trade secret case is: what exactly is the trade secret information that’s being claimed? Usually, companies have not made an inventory of their information assets, and even if they have, the specific data involved in any given dispute is unlikely to have been described with precision before litigation begins. As a result, identification of the subject matter – and when and how to do it – has become a frequent early battleground in trade secret litigation.
Of course, the publicly-filed complaint should not have to describe the secret information, because that would destroy the right that the action tries to protect. But merely reciting “vague and broad categories that do not allow [the accused party] to determine what the boundaries of the secrets are” is insufficient to withstand a motion to dismiss. Dong Phuong Bakery, Inc. v. Gemini Soc’y, LLC, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 54958 at *17-18 (E.D. La. Mar. 28, 2022) (secrets defined as “comprehensive strategies for new and emerging markets, . . . roadmaps to focus sales and marketing efforts . . . and other confidential business information.” That said, individual judges may differ on what is ”vague and broad.” Compare Bureau Veritas Commodities & Trade, Inc. v. Cotecna Insp. SA, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 57408, at *14-18 (S.D. Tex. Mar. 29, 2022), where a complaint alleging misappropriation of “business plans” and “customer lists” was found sufficient to withstand motions to dismiss and for a more definite statement.
Because those who misappropriate trade secrets would like to keep their actions, well, secret, it’s often difficult to find direct evidence of theft, and plaintiffs must prove their case with circumstantial evidence. However, there is a real (if indeterminate) difference between permissible inference and impermissible speculation, and so it is important to marshal as much convincing circumstantial proof as possible. Sometimes the sheer audacity of a competitor’s recruiting efforts will be enough to justify the claim. That was true in Suzhou Angela Online Game Tech. Co. v. Snail Games USA Inc., 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 20164 at *24 (C.D. Cal. Jan. 31, 2022), where 60 employees hired by defendant in one year came from the plaintiff.
Where the plaintiff’s alleged secret consists of a “combination” of elements which may exist individually in the public domain (see the Bimbo Bakeries reference earlier), the defendant might assume that misappropriation requires implementation of the entire combination as it was created by the plaintiff; but that would be wrong. As with other types of secret information, the question is whether the defendant has “used” it even indirectly, which can be reflected in evidence of an accelerated development program. See Caudill Seed & Warehouse Co. v. Jarrow Formulas, Inc., 2022 U.S. App. LEXIS 31246 at *27-28 (6th Cir. Nov. 10, 2022), where a key researcher left to join a competitor with a collection of thousands of published papers which he had curated for many years as the basis of the plaintiff’s formulation. The defendant relied on differences with its own product, but the court explained that misappropriation of a combination secret does not require that the defendant’s product be identical. Otherwise, “a trade-secret thief could misappropriate a research process, design a competing product in far less time than it would have otherwise taken, and avoid liability because it did not debut the same product as its victim-competitor.”
Finally, where a plaintiff asserts misappropriation by a departing employee, it has to provide proof of real misbehavior, not just fear of “inevitable” misuse. In CAE Integrated, LLC. v. Moov Techs., Inc., 44 F.4th 257, 262-263 (5th Cir. 2022), the employee discarded any customer lists before arriving at his new job. The plaintiff pressed for an injunction, arguing that he still knew all the relevant information. Denying the injunction, the judge cited the relevant provision of the DTSA, 18 U.S.C. § 1836(b)(3)(A)(i)(I)), which prohibits injunctions against an individual unless based on actual behavior that indicates a threat of misappropriation.
Assuming trade secret misappropriation has occurred or is threatened, the question becomes what to do about it. In many cases, the urgency of avoiding continuing damage leads the plaintiff to request a preliminary injunction. But because that remedy is “extraordinary,” the requirements can be difficult to meet. Chief among these is specificity. As noted above, trade secret cases present a particular challenge as compared to other forms of intellectual property like patents, where the boundaries of the right are to a great extent defined by the terms of a government grant. When it comes to fashioning a pretrial remedy for which a violation is punishable by contempt, it’s understandable that the courts will insist on clarity and precision of the order.
Nevertheless, the Court of Appeals of Texas in Dey v. Seilevel Partners, LP, 2022 Tex.App. LEXIS 1911 at *17-19 (7th Dist. March 23, 2022) approved a preliminary injunction that broadly prohibited use of the plaintiff’s “confidential or proprietary information,” because the language was taken “almost verbatim from the language in the temporary restraining order to which Dey agreed.” Defense counsel should take note that early efforts to appease the plaintiff by stipulating to a TRO may come back to bite in this way. It may be wise to include in any agreed temporary orders a suitable proviso preserving objections to the terms of any subsequent order.
As for damages, a couple of cases this year serve to remind us that causation is an inherent element of any damage analysis, and that while judges may allow circumstantial proof of misappropriation that skirts the edge of speculation, and while the amount of damage may be established in the face of uncertainty, the same flexibility may not be available when it comes to plaintiff’s proof that it has in fact been harmed. For example, in Geometwatch Corp. v. Behunin, 38 F.4th 1183, 1205 (10th Cir. 2022), the court affirmed summary judgment on a claim that the defendant’s misappropriation led to a collapse of a planned venture to commercialize a satellite-based weather sensor system. It emphasized the plaintiff’s failure to present actual evidence, as opposed to speculation, that the venture was abandoned due to the alleged misappropriation.
One damage theory that almost always deserves early attention is the royalty measure, in which the defendant’s unjust enrichment is established by what it would have been willing to pay, in a hypothetical negotiation, for honest access to the secret information. In Airfacts, Inc. v. Amezaga, 30 F.4th 359, 367-368 (4th Cir. 2022), the court of appeals reversed a ruling by the trial court that plaintiff could not recover royalty damages because there was no proof that the defendant had ultimately “used” the trade secrets in commerce. Emphasizing the UTSA’s authorization of royalty damages “[i]n lieu of damages measured by any other methods . . . for a misappropriator’s unauthorized disclosure or use of a trade secret,” the court concluded that it was not possible to “condition such awards on a defendant putting a trade secret to commercial use.”
For a similar perspective, we should consider PPG Indus. v. Jiangsu Tie Mao Glass Co., 47 F.4th 156, 162 (3d Cir. 2022), where the defendant had engaged in an obviously deliberate theft, but argued that it didn’t benefit from it because it never actually manufactured a relevant product. Nevertheless, the court explained, the secrets had been “used” to avoid extensive research and development, enabling immediate preparations for manufacture; therefore it was appropriate to use evidence of the plaintiff’s cost to develop the information as a proxy for the benefit that the defendant derived from the misappropriation, even if it was unable to carry out its plan.
Last year saw a highly impactful decision on the CFAA from the U.S. Supreme Court in Van Buren v. United States, 141 S.Ct. 1648 (2021), settling a conflict among the circuits and holding that an “authorized” user of a computer system does not violate the statute when he uses that authorized access for an improper purpose. This year the Ninth Circuit has provided another level of assurance about the CFAA, dealing with the scraping of data from a publicly accessible website. In hiQ Labs, Inc. v. LinkedIn Corp., 2022 U.S. App. LEXIS 10349 at *30-36 (9th Cir. Apr. 18, 2022), the court considered whether LinkedIn, whose business model requires open access to its website, could nevertheless effectively block hiQ from scraping data by serving it with a letter stating that it was not authorized to do so. Affirming an injunction based on a claim of tortious interference, the court explained that the CFAA could not apply to preempt hiQ’s claim, because when the “default is free access without authorization, in ordinary parlance one would characterize selective denial of access as a ban, not as a lack of ‘authorization.’” Id. at *32.