Vale Think Secret

December 21st, 2007

Apple announced that it has settled two-year old litigation over Apple rumor blog Think Secret’s publication of information about the then-pending release of the Mac Mini computer. Some pundits have expressed concern that the settlement involves closing down Think Secret’s site, and that this may set an unhappy precedent for other blogs.

That worry seems a bit overblown to me- being put out of business by a big-guy litigant is an ever-present risk for little guys everywhere. Just because it happened once doesn’t make it any more or less likely to keep happening.

What I found interesting in the case, in light of my earlier post about trade secrets, is that Apple initially brought suit claiming trade secret infringement. I.e. that the existence of and Apple’s plans for the Mac Mini were not-generally-known information with economic value that Apple had taken steps to keep secret. The court disagreed and held that the information did not constitute a trade secret.

Here’s another difference between trade secrets and other types of IP, then- a party has to prove to the court first that it owns a trade secret, and then that the secret has been improperly disclosed. Patents and trademarks are registered through processes in front of Patent and Trademark Office attorneys, not by a judge or jury.

It isn’t immediately clear to me if this is a positive or negative attribute of trade secrets. It may be as simple as pay now (for patent or trademark registration) or pay later (when trade secret litigation comes up). Depending on how complex the topic is, I can see a USPTO examining attorney reaching a different conclusion from a judicial factfinder (judge or jury) about whether certain information is proprietary. At the least USPTO precedents and procedures are a bit better mapped so the outcome may be a little more predictable. Banking on a court to uphold a trade secret requires an extra roll of the dice.

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I Can Understand a Patent and a Trademark, but How the Heck do Trade Secrets Work?

December 20th, 2007

Trade secrets are a deceptively simple idea: like the fabled Coca-Cola formula, they are proprietary ideas that have never been shared. Because they are “secret” they are entitled to intellectual property protection.

But what does that really mean, and how does one keep something “secret”? Clients ask me this with some frequency (hm- $30k to obtain a patent that I then need to spend more money to enforce, or $0 to keep a secret?) and I’d like to share some of the basic concepts. There are some excellent “deep” resources out there, so I will focus on the common questions I get from clients.

What is a Trade Secret?
Under California law, a trade secret is (i) information that (ii) has economic value, (iii) is not generally known, and (iv) is subject to reasonable efforts to keep secret. It can be an idea, a process, software, knowledge of ideas that don’t work, and many other things. Essentially it needs to provide an economic advantage to the holder, and steps need to be taken to protect the secrecy. Since efforts to protect secrecy can easily lead down a slippery slope, it is worth noting that extreme, expensive measures to prevent industrial sabotage are not required.

How Can I Lose My Trade Secret?
The one word answer is “disclosure”. Inadvertent or intentional disclosure will both blow the protection. In the latter case damages may be available for breach of secrecy obligations, but accidental disclosure will do the job as well. Workers should be told the information they are handling is confidential, steps should be taken to recover records from departed workers and reasonable measures should be taken to make sure that information is maintained on a “need to know” basis if the secret is a critical one.

It is also worth noting that independent development of the information will terminate trade secret rights. Reverse engineering does not violate trade secret protection laws, and a “hot” idea that is not generally known when developed can become known later and lose protection as a secret.

How Do I Know I am Not Infringing Someone Else’s Secret?
This is tricky. Patents and (registered) trademarks require public filings, so a company can find it if there is existing protected IP in a given area. Trade secrets are secret by nature, so it is entirely possible that one could develop technology that inadvertently duplicates someone else’s trade secret right.

The answer is, again, that independent development by itself does not infringe a trade secret. The key here is to have enough notes, research records and other facts to back up the argument that one developed one’s information independently and without reference to the competitor’s secret information. In a small field where the players know one another well this may be easier said than done.

Talk to Your Lawyer
These ideas scratch the surface of trade secret law and probably beg more questions than they answer, like “what do I do if someone discloses my secret”, “how can I make sure my employees protect my secrets” and “what are the remedies for theft of a trade secret?” Anyone asking these questions should definitely talk to a lawyer- the answers are too complex and likely depend on specific facts. Still, I hope this gets some people pointed in the right direction with regard to what trade secrets can and can’t do, or at least helps figure out what further questions need to be asked.

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