Latest U.S. Efforts to Prosecute Trade Secret Theft Hit a Few Snags

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Earlier this year, the Department of Justice announced an initiative to step up its enforcement of trade secret theft. In a February 20 press conference, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Obama administration aimed to make it a top priority to prosecute intellectual property crimes. At the press conference, the DOJ unveiled a report titled, “Administration Strategy on Mitigating the Theft of U.S. Trade Secrets,” which focuses largely on how to prevent and remedy trade secret theft by foreign governments and foreign corporations.

Only two days later, however, a development in one of the DOJ’s highest-profile trade secrets cases demonstrated the difficulties of prosecuting foreign defendants. On February 22, a federal judge in the Eastern District of Virginia determined that, despite eight attempts, the DOJ had not properly served Kolon Industries Inc, a South Korean company accused of stealing trade secrets from duPont, a U.S. company. The DOJ’s criminal case follows a civil trial that returned a $919.9 million judgment against Kolon for stealing 149 trade secrets related to Kevlar, a synthetic fiber used in body armor. Kolon used those trade secrets to create its own competing fabric, Heracron.

The difficulties the DOJ encountered in bringing the overseas perpetrators to justice is especially relevant because the report indicates that most secret theft is committed by foreign nationals, especially in China. According to the report, “Chinese actors are the world’s most active and persistent perpetrators of economic espionage. US private sector firms and cybersecurity specialists have reported an onslaught of computer network intrusions that have originated in China, but the [intelligence community] cannot confirm who was responsible.” The vast majority of cases highlighted in the report involve Chinese nationals or Chinese firms.

The difficulties in bringing foreign nationals to justice only emphasize the need for corporations to take stronger precautions to prevent their trade secrets from being stolen in the first place. The “Administration Strategy” document recognized this need and proposed that companies work cooperatively to develop best practices for trade secret protection in areas such as research and development compartmentalization, information security policies, physical security policies, and human resources policies.

The “Administration Strategy” document notes that companies suffering from trade secret theft may be hesitant to come forward for fear of how it could affect the company and its stakeholders. However, the document encourages them to do so, both in order to bring the perpetrator to justice and to allow the government to collect information that could help to identify patterns in trade theft and prevent similar events in the future.

The DOJ has demonstrated its commitment to trade secret enforcement by continuing to pursue the Kolon case despite the February setback. The DOJ filed a superseding indictment on March 19 and must now serve Kolon in accordance with the judge’s February 22 order. Given the fanfare with which the DOJ announced its trade secret agenda, there is no doubt that the government will continue to doggedly pursue this and other trade secret cases.

We support the DOJ’s effort to protect corporate trade secrets so that companies can benefit from the innovation that they work so hard to develop. As always, we also remain on the lookout for indications of overzealous prosecution in instances where it does not appear that confidential proprietary information has been stolen.