A Criminal Conviction for Theft of a Trade Secret Does Not Require a Trade Secret

In an unusual case involving trade secrets, a court determined that the mere belief that stolen information is a trade secret, even when no trade secret was stolen, is criminally convictable. As an important tool for protecting intellectual property, businesses will often keep valuable information  secret, and only provide access to individuals necessary to complete some business objective. Most businesses grant access to the trade secret on the belief that misappropriation is actionable under the Defend Trade Secrets Act of 2016, as well as state laws that are substantially similar to the federal law. It is less known, however, that the theft of a trade secret is a federal crime, pursuant to the Economic Espionage Act of 1996 (“EEA”), as codified at 18 U.S.C. § 1832.

In this particular case out of Chicago, an employee resigned and, before leaving, downloaded 1900 files from his employer. He believed that this information constituted trade secrets of his employer, and had the intention to take these trade secrets to his new foreign based employer. However, prior to boarding his plane to China, he was stopped by the United States Customs and Border Patrol, where the hard drive was discovered.

In February 2019, he was convicted by a jury of actual and attempted theft of trade secrets, pursuant to the EEA. The jury also determined that, to a large extent, the stolen documents did not constitute a trade secret. The defendant filed for a post-conviction motion for a new trial, with an argument that you can’t be convicted of theft of trade secrets if the information did not include any trade secrets.

On October 9, 2019, the judge ruled that theft of trade secrets under the EEA exists even if the underlying materials don’t constitute a trade secret. This suggests that stealing what is believed to be a trade secret constitutes a crime. This outcome certainly poses a unique perspective on a lesser known consequence regarding theft of a trade secret. Whether this concept will transfer to non-criminal litigation over the theft of trade secrets has yet to be determined.

For a detailed history, please see United States of America v. Robert O’Rourke, No. 17-cr-00495, (N.D. Ill. 2019).

VW Contributor: Alex B. Rainville
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Foreign-Domiciled Applicants; Why the Change at the Trademark Office?

By Alex Rainville

In a long anticipated decision, starting on August 3, 2019, foreign domiciled trademark applicants, registrants, and parties must be represented by a US licensed attorney in front of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”). This means that any foreign-domiciled person or business wishing to seek trademark registration with the USPTO must appoint a US licensed attorney to file and prosecute the trademark registration application. This may appear like an unnecessary burden, but it is part of fixing overarching administrative problems.

The USPTO is actively trying to modernize and streamline the trademark registration application process, to ensure timely review of applications and increase efficiency to final outcomes. One of the challenges to this process has been a large number of foreign-domiciled applicants submitting inaccurate, and often times fraudulent, materials. By way of example, a common problem with these applications is the specimens are either failing to meet the required standards or are outright fraudulent. This increases the time required for the USPTO to examine and process applications, resulting in an inefficient registration process for all applicants. By using a US licensed attorney, the USPTO expects that the applications will be more accurate and eliminate much of fraud, ultimately increasing efficiency.

For businesses wishing to protect its intellectual property, even those based in the US, it is a good idea to hire a trademark attorney. For example, the attorney will be able to guide you on what can be protected under the Lanham Act and the common law, and the best avenue to obtain registration or, more generally, protection for your intellectual property. They will also ensure you and your business are not defrauded by the multitude of USPTO imposters, and will know how to file complaints regarding these imposters with the Federal Trade Commission, for the Department of Justice to prosecute. Although this change of policy at the USPTO may seem unfair to foreign-domiciled applicants, the change may ultimately benefit all the businesses relying on the USPTO to protect its brand and intellectual property.

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Circuit Split on Data Breach Litigation

On March 25th, 2019, the Supreme Court denied review of a case involving individuals whose personal information held in a database was breached by hackers. Specifically, the issue was whether the parties requesting review had Article III “standing” to sue due to the database breach.

Standing is the authority of a court to hear a case. For the court to exercise such authority, the court will only hear cases based on events that cause actual injuries or create real threats of imminent harm to individuals who brought the case. The D.C. Circuit Court in its ruling of June 21st, 2019 deepened the split among contradicting circuit rulings. The D.C. Circuit Court ruled the petitioning party had standing to bring the case due to the breach of 21.5 million social security numbers, birth dates, and residency details of former, current, and prospective employees. The court held that, the plaintiff’s fear of facing a substantial risk of future identity theft met the burden to establish standing.

While the Sixth, Seventh, and Ninth circuits have similarly concluded that a heightened risk of identity theft is sufficient for individuals to possess standing to sue; the Second, Third, Fourth, and Eighth Circuits have ruled in the opposite direction. Distinct facts from this  latest data breach case include the nature of the defendant being a federal government agency and the alleged identity of the hacker being a foreign government entity where the breach was executed for purposes other than identity theft. Nonetheless, the D.C. Circuit Court found the federal government agency liable as well as Office of Personnel Management’s (OPMs) third-party vendor, despite the contract between the two parties. The Supreme Court may need to review and rule on this crucial issue in the near future given the current split of authority.

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The Defend Trade Secrets Act

Last summer, Congress enacted the Defend Trade Secrets Act (“DTSA”), which created a federal civil cause of action for misappropriation of trade secrets. Recently, various courts have started to interpret the DTSA, and determined that it does not preempt existing state law, but gives trade secret owners the option to enforce their claims and receive more consistent outcomes than they would in state court. Prior to the DTSA’s enactment, manufacturers and sellers had to bring trade secret misappropriation claims in state court, unless the parties could establish diversity jurisdiction or an independent federal cause of action.  Because state interpretations of the Uniform Trade Secrets Act vary in every state, consistent relief was not always possible.  For example, the definition of “trade secret” and the types of remedies differ across states. However, the DTSA applies nationwide and provides a uniform statute for trade secret owners to rely on in federal court.

The DTSA has important features that will impact trade secret owners.  Notably, it defines “misappropriation” and “trade secret”, which aids in consistent enforcement across state lines.  Additionally, it creates a civil seizure mechanism, which allows courts to order the seizure of property to prevent the propagation or dissemination of the trade secret, even before a formal finding of misappropriation is established and without notice to the alleged wrongdoer.  Last, a whistleblower provision provides immunity to employees from criminal or civil liability under federal or state laws for disclosing a trade secret to an attorney or government official for purposes of reporting or investigating a suspected violation of the law or filing a lawsuit made under seal.

Most controversial is the civil seizure provision, and courts are reluctant to permit seizures unless the plaintiff establishes necessity. Also controversial, federal courts are turning to state courts for guidance in interpreting the DTSA, thus, defeating its underlying purpose of providing uniformity. However, these issues are likely to be resolved over time. Since its enactment, it is estimated that less than seventy cases have been brought under the DTSA, but the law provides an important option for those pursuing trade secret claims.

© 2017 Vandenack Weaver LLC
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Federal Civil Remedy for Misappropriation of Trade Secrets Now Available

by M. Tom Langan, II

President Obama recently signed into law legislation that creates a federal civil remedy for the misappropriation of trade secrets. Trade secrets are a form of intellectual property that consist of a business’s methods, designs, formulas, and other confidential or proprietary information that helps a business obtain economic advantages over its competitors. While there were federal remedies for misappropriation of other forms of intellectual property (i.e. trademarks, patents, copyrights etc.), trade secrets were not protected at the federal level until now. The Defend Trade Secrets Act of 2015 offers a variety of remedies, from monetary penalties to injunctive relief to even seizure orders – all designed to stop the unlawful dissemination of trade secrets. There is a 3 year statute of limitations to bring a claim based off when the misappropriation is discovered or should have been discovered based off a reasonable investigation.

© 2016 Vandenack Williams LLC
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Understanding and Preventing Unintentional Copyright Infringement on Websites

Federal copyright law protects a copyright owner from a wide range of intentional and unintentional infringement. For example, an entity that runs a blog or a website could be liable for copyright infringement if a third party posts copyrighted material onto the webpage. In fact, the federal copyright law is broad and states: “[a]nyone who violates any of the exclusive rights of the copyright owner . . .  is an infringer of the copyright or right of the author, as the case may be.” 17 U.S.C. § 501. In conjunction with the strict liability standard used in copyright infringement cases, violating federal copyright law becomes frequent and difficult to prevent in the digital age.

In light of modern technology, new copyright challenges have emerged, such as one found in Perfect 10, Inc. v. Amazon.com, Inc., 508 F.3d 1146 (9th Cir. 2007), which involved two large technology companies, Google and Amazon. The issue, in essence, was Google and Amazon infringing upon copyrighted photographs because Google’s automated website indexing propagated the photographs in image searches, and subsequently on Amazon for other related services. Although this complex litigation involved a multitude of factors within copyright law, the issue in the case highlights the propensity for unintended copyright infringement with technology.

Fortunately, Congress recognized this issue in 1998 and passed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, creating safe harbors for unintentional copyright infringement in specific situations. Although the safe harbors are somewhat limited, the law is intended to “balance the interests of copyright owners and online service providers by promoting cooperation, minimizing copyright infringement, and providing a higher degree of certainty to service providers on the question of copyright infringement.” Capitol Records, Inc. v. MP3tunes, LLC, 821 F.Supp.2d 627 (S.D.N.Y. 2011). Ultimately, this means every entity that has a website, blog, or online community of some sort, should take measures to ensure that their online presence fits within a safe harbor or does not violate copyright law.

© 2015 Houghton Vandenack Williams
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Domain Blocks Now Available for “.sucks” Domain Extensions

By Tom Langan. Earlier this year, over 550 new domain name extensions were created.  Examples include .basketball, .college, .miami, and .fishing.  Among the more controversial additions is “.sucks” which allows nearly anyone to obtain the domain www.[InsertYourName].sucks.  A “domain block” feature is now available that would allow individuals and/or business owners to reserve .sucks domain extensions and prevent others from using it. A domain block costs $199 and is valid for one (1) year.

© 2015 Houghton Vandenack Williams
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