Trade Secrets and Economic Espionage


On April 29, 2014, U.S. Senators Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), the former Chairman and a current member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Chris Coons (D-Del.), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, introduced the Defend Trade Secrets Act of 2014 [the “DTSA”].  The DTSA is a bipartisan bill that proposes to amend the Economic Espionage Act of 1996 [the “EEA”] to create the first federal private right-of-action for theft of trade secrets.

Trade secret theft is on the rise.  According to Senators Hatch and Coons, theft of corporate trade secrets results in an estimated loss of $160 billion to $480 billion each year in the United States.  In this information age, trade secrets may be vulnerable to theft by a few keystrokes from a remote location, compared to the bygone era when trade secret theft may have required accessing and photocopying paper documents stored under lock and key.  Trade secrets are increasingly stolen at the direction of a foreign government or to benefit a foreign competitor.  “The intellectual property that drives the U.S. economy has never been more valuable, or more vulnerable,” according to Senator Coons.  “American companies are losing jobs because of the theft of trade secrets every day.”

Currently, trade secret misappropriation claims are generally brought under state laws.  Trade secret laws vary from state to state, which can create problems for trade secret owners and make it difficult for U.S. companies to develop uniform policies.  Although the EEA made trade secret theft a federal crime, federal criminal laws do not appear to have successfully stemmed the tide.  The Department of Justice brought only 25 cases of criminal trade secret theft in 2013.
The availability of a federal civil cause of action may harmonize U.S. trade secret law, enable companies to develop a unified set of nondisclosure policies with federal protection, create a uniform standard for trade secret misappropriation, and facilitate access to federal courts.  The DTSA bill would arm trade secret owners with federal rights and remedies, including:

ex parte orders to preserve evidence and seize property;

• injunctions or royalties in lieu of an injunction;

• damages for actual loss plus unjust enrichment to the extent not compensated by an award of actual loss, or a reasonable royalty in lieu of damages measured by other methods; 

• potential treble damages for willful or malicious trade secret misappropriation; and

• reasonable attorney fees for willful and malicious misappropriation, bad faith claims of misappropriation, or motions to terminate an injunction made or opposed in bad faith.

Rapid changes in technology and increases in employee turnover in today’s job market warrant appropriate measures to preserve and protect trade secrets.  This federal legislation may help companies protect their valuable trade secrets, but trade secret owners will need to continue to rely on state laws for the time being.


DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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