On September 14, 2018, a former scientist at GlaxoSmithKline (“GSK”) pled guilty to conspiring to steal trade secrets from his former employer. Dr. Tao Li was accused of stealing confidential information about anti-cancer drugs from a GSK facility in Upper Merion, Pennsylvania after conspiring with other GSK employees who provided information to him via email, in person, and on a thumb drive. Dr. Li had established a rival company in Nanjing, China with financial backing from the Chinese government. The trade secrets allegedly stolen from GSK included detailed information about multiple products under development and information about manufacturing these products. This case is part of a larger trend, as federal authorities seek to crack down on the theft of trade secrets used to establish competitor companies in China. The United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, William McSwain, commented “[n]ot only is this a serious crime, but it is literally a form of economic warfare against American interests. Such criminal behavior must be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.” Dr. Li will be sentenced on January 4, 2019 and faces up to 10 years in federal prison.
StubHub, an online ticket exchange company, successfully defeated a suit brought by start-up company Calendar Research LLC. Calendar had alleged that three of its former employees used proprietary data in developing applications for StubHub. In its suit, Calendar Research alleged that the former employees downloaded proprietary information that belonged to the startup that they didn’t return and maintained access to Calendar Research’s source code.
A California federal judge found that Calendar Research failed to show that the application created by StubHub used proprietary information. The applications did not use the same source code or have any other similarities. Furthermore, Calendar failed to meet an element of a claim for misappropriation under the Defense Against Trade Secrets Act (DTSA) that requires plaintiffs to show that a defendant had knowledge that the trade secret was improperly acquired. The court held that it “lacks any evidence to make a finding that StubHub acquired, disclosed, or used plaintiff’s trade secrets with knowledge. And the court lacks any evidence with which to impute that knowledge, considering that the code does not show any similarities and plaintiff’s alleged compilations do not have novelty.” In reaching this decision, a thorough review of the source code for both applications revealed that proprietary information was not misappropriated. For seven of eight StubHub apps for which the ticket company submitted source code, the judge said that neither of the experts who analyzed the code from those apps found that it was “similar, let alone identical, to the Calendar Research code.”
Although he dismissed the DTSA claims, the judge lifted the stay on several other claims, including allegations brought under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. The attorneys for Calendar Research stated that they are considering appealing the order because “Through this lawsuit, we are sending a message on behalf of tech startups everywhere that StubHub and other large companies have to pay a fair price for technology they want, they cannot just take it.”
In May 2018, U.S. District Judge Katherine B. Forrest of the Southern District of New York granted PepsiCo, Inc.’s (“Pepsi”) summary judgment motion against ScentSational Technologies, LLC (“ScentSational”).
ScentSational, a company that develops methods of delivering scents in food and beverage packaging to alter a consumer’s taste perception, alleged that Pepsi learned its trade secrets in the course of their business relationship that it included in a patent application that caused Coca-Cola (“Coke”) to terminate a $70 million dollar project with ScentSational. Pepsi argued it was actively pursuing parallel in-house development at the same time it was in discussions to use ScentSational’s aroma release technology.
The court granted Pepsi’s summary judgment motion on trade secret misappropriation and breach of contract claims because there was no causation where ScentSational and Coke’s lone statement of work had already expired and chances of commercializing the project were “well below 50%” such that no reasonable juror could conclude that Pepsi’s patent application caused Coke to terminate its project with ScentSational, and no damages where ScentSational failed to put forward sufficient record evidence to support its $70 million dollars in alleged lost profit damages.
As we previously posted, in June 2018 Tesla filed suit against a former employee, Martin Tripp, alleging trade secret misappropriation. Mr. Tripp has now filed an answer to Tesla’s accusations expanding on his whistleblower defense and bringing three intentional tort counterclaims against Tesla. According to his answer, Mr. Tripp was driven to act as whistleblower in response to numerous manufacturing practices at Tesla’s Nevada facility that allegedly posed a risk to both employees and customers. For example, Mr. Tripp alleges that Tesla used a non-validated manufacturing line to produce automotive parts and that his supervisors allowed workers to leave hazardous amounts of scrap metal throughout the manufacturing area. Mr. Tripp alleges that when his supervisors failed to address these concerns, he brought them to Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk directly. But rather than take corrective action, Tesla reassigned Mr. Tripp to Tesla’s battery assembly line. That’s where Mr. Tripp alleges to have learned that a defective manufacturing robot punctured over a thousand batteries and that Tesla knowingly installed hundreds of these defective batteries in Model S vehicles. Mr. Tripp also denies accessing Tesla’s operating system to steal trade secrets—although he admits to using Tesla’s manufacturing software to track which parts were installed in automobiles.
Additionally, Mr. Tripp brings three counterclaims based, in part, on Tesla’s allegations of trade secret misappropriation. For instance, Mr. Tripp claims Elon Musk defamed him in an email to Tesla employees that accused him of “extensive and damaging sabotage” and of “exporting large amounts of highly sensitive Tesla data to unknown third parties.” In addition to defamation, Mr. Tripp asserts invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress claims based on statements made by Elon Musk and a spokesperson for Tesla about his actions as well as a accusations that Mr. Tripp threatened to “shoot . . .up” the Tesla facility.
We’ll keep watching and report how Tesla responds to Mr. Tripp’s counterclaims.
In December 2017, Swarmify, Inc. filed a lawsuit against CloudFlare, Inc. in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. The tech companies both have video streaming products. According to the Swarmify complaint, CloudFlare stole Swarmify’s trade secrets revealed during negotiations between the two companies. Specifically, Swarmify alleged that CloudFlare used its trade secrets to create a faster, more efficient video streaming service. After seven months of litigation, on June 21, 2018, and on the eve of the close of discovery in the case, Swarmify filed a motion to dismiss its claims. While Swarmify had initially sought dismissal without prejudice, when the Court informed Swarmify that it would not permit dismissal without prejudice, Swarmify agreed to a dismissal with prejudice. Swarmify’s request that its claims be dismissed was made after the trial court had ruled against it on its request for a preliminary injunction, the decision of which was entered on March 2, 2018.
After the dismissal with prejudice on Swarmify’s complaint was entered, on July 24, 2018, CloudFlare filed a motion for attorneys fees under the California Uniform Trade Secrets Act and Defend Against Trade Secrets Act, arguing that Swarmify had made its trade secret misappropriation claim in bad faith. Specifically, CloudFlare alleged that “Swarmify’s trade-secret claims were objectively specious and pursued in bad faith,” in particular after the Court had denied Swarmify’s motion for preliminary injunction. CloudFlare further alleged that Swarmify was using discovery costs in an improper attempt to obtain leverage for a settlement. CloudFlare asserted that Swarmify “made no realistic attempt to participate discovery or support its own claims” and “ignor[ed] the evidence” presented by CloudFlare, which proved that CloudFlare’s video streaming technology was both independently developed months before any negotiations between the parties had begun, and that the trade secrets at issue were also within the public domain from numerous sources. Further, CloudFlare pointed out that Swarmify’s request for dismissal came only after CloudFlare refused to capitulate to Swarmify’s settlement demands, which, according to CloudFlare, was further indication that Swarmify’s claims were independently baseless. In its motion for fees, CloudFlare claims to have incurred approximately $380,000 in attorney’s fees, but only requested $200,000 (the amount spent after the Court’s ruling on Swarmify’s preliminary injunction).
The federal district court is scheduled to hear CloudFlare’s motion for attorneys’ fees on September 13, 2018. While there is precedent for awarding attorney’s fees for pursuing misappropriation claims in bad faith under CUTSA, if the Court rules in favor of CloudFlare, it could be the first time an award of attorney’s fees is granted under DTSA.
Check back next month to find out how the Court rules.
On August 1, 2018, Xiaoqing Zheng was arrested for alleged theft of trade secrets belonging to General Electric (“GE”). Mr. Zheng, a graduate of MIT and an engineer who worked in the Power division of GE, is accused of stealing dozens of encrypted computer files related to turbine operation. In order to get the files out of the building, Mr. Zheng allegedly hid the data in the code for a picture of an “innocuous looking” sunset, which he then emailed to his personal email address. However, GE had been monitoring Mr. Zheng’s computer activity after it learned that he had downloaded 19,000 other files to an external hard drive. According to a company statement, GE had been in “close cooperation with the FBI for some time on this matter.” The statement continued, “At GE, we aggressively protect and defend our intellectual property and have strict processes in place for identifying these issues and partnering with law enforcement.” The FBI complaint alleges that Mr. Zheng was using the trade secrets to benefit an aeronautical company he owns in China. This isn’t an isolated incident. Just last month, China-based Sinovel Wind Group paid a $57.5 million dollar settlement related to stolen data regarding wind turbine technology that it took from Massachusetts-based technology company American Superconductor Inc.
Following the high-profile trade secrets litigation and settlement between Waymo and Uber in February 2018, covered previously in this blog, a defamation claim was filed by four Uber employees against Uber’s former global intelligence manager, Richard Jacobs. The case alleges that Jacobs defamed the four plaintiffs by accusing them — initially in an intra-office email, which was later broadcast to the world as part of the now-settled Waymo v. Uber case — of wiretapping, trade secret theft, and hacking.
The plaintiffs filed a motion earlier this month asking the federal judge hearing the matter to relate the defamation suit to the initial trade secret case, arguing that Jacobs’ statements received substantial attention in that matter. Jacobs responded by filing an opposition to this motion last week, arguing that there was no reason for the plaintiffs to have waited several months to file the motion, that the cases involve different facts, and that relating the cases would unnecessarily complicate matters. Whether the court agrees remains to be seen.
In June 2018, Tesla brought suit against a disgruntled former employee, Martin Tripp, for trade secret misappropriation. Tesla claims that Mr. Tripp hacked Tesla’s computer system, distributed its proprietary and confidential data to third parties, and distributed photographs and videos of Tesla’s manufacturing facility. In its complaint filed in a U.S. District Court in Nevada, Tesla asserts federal and state trade secret misappropriation, breach of contract, and violations of the Nevada Computer Crimes Law claims against Mr. Tripp. Tesla’s complaint does not identify the specific trade secrets Mr. Tripp is alleged to have disclosed, but alleges that Tesla maintains various methods, systems, and processes as trade secrets and that Mr. Tripp’s conduct revealed unspecified “manufacturing systems.”
Mr. Tripp, on the other hand, tells a different story. Perhaps positioning himself to assert whistleblower immunity under the DTSA, Mr. Tripp claims he shared information with news outlets to expose “some really scary things” going on inside of Tesla after becoming disillusioned with the company’s practices. In particular, Mr. Tripp claims Tesla installed punctured batteries in Model 3 vehicles, improperly disposed of raw-material waste, and inflated sales numbers. Establishing whistleblower immunity under the DTSA, however, may be an uphill battle for Mr. Tripp. The DTSA limits whistleblower immunity to confidential disclosures to the government or attorneys as part of a complaint or other judicial document filed under seal, not leaks to the media. For its part, Tesla has denied Mr. Tripp’s allegations of misconduct.
We will be watching this case to see how it unfolds.
New York has recently enacted disclosure laws that could impact clean product manufacturers’ ability to protect their trade secret chemical formulations. While California was the first U.S. state to pass a law requiring disclosure of all substances contained in cleaning products, New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation (“DEC”) Household Cleansing Product Information Disclosure Program imposes stricter requirements than California on what must be disclosed.
Both laws require manufactures of cleaning products to disclose all chemicals used in household cleaning products on their websites, and identify any ingredients that appear on authoritative lists of chemicals of concern. However, the New York law also requires manufactures to identify any ingredient that is a nanoscale material.
While both laws have an exemption allowing trade secrets to not be disclosed there are some key differences:
California’s Cleaning Product Right to Know Act of 2017
New York’s Household Cleansing Product Information Disclosure Program
|Disclose all intentionally added ingredients unless it is confidential business information (“CBI”)||Disclose all intentionally added ingredients, including those present in trace quantities, PLUS all ingredients present only as an unintentional consequence of manufacturing and present above trace quantities (0.1%) where the manufacturer knows or should reasonably know of such ingredients, impurities, or contaminants, unless they are withheld as CBI|
|Provide CBI justification only on request for audit by the Attorney General||Provide CBI justification only on request of the DEC for evaluation|
|Penalty: prohibited from selling product||Penalty: prohibited from selling product PLUS an initial fine of up to $2500, and $500 for each additional day of violation|
California’s requirements for manufacturers are a lot clearer than New York’s: the “knew or should have known” standard in New York may make full disclosure more difficult. But in either state, manufacturers are able to protect their trade secret information and withhold it from disclosure. What remains to be seen is how (and if) litigation arises challenging a company’s decision to withhold CBI, what kind of information falls within that scope, and what justification is required to maintain trade secret protection.
In July 2018, U.S. District Judge James Patterson imposed a $59 million penalty against China’s largest wind-turbine firm, Sinovel Wind Group LLC (“Sinovel”), for stealing trade secrets from a Massachusetts-based technology company, American Superconductor Inc. (“AMSC”). This fine was imposed as restitution to the American company, AMSC, after Sinovel was found guilty of stealing trade secrets in federal criminal court in January 2018. At trial, the court found that AMSC’s losses from the theft exceeded $550 million. The ordeal left AMSC in perilous financial shape. The U.S. Department of Justice said that the company lost more than $1 billion in shareholder equity and 700 jobs. Because of the severity behind Sinovel’s theft, the court ordered Sinovel to pay $1.5 million in fines and $57.5 million in restitution, and the company was put on probation for one year. The parties reached a settlement with Sinovel, which it agreed to pay the $57.5 million in restitution.
Acting Assistant Attorney General Cronan stated, “[a]s demonstrated by this prosecution, intellectual property theft poses a serious threat to American companies, and the Department of Justice is committed to aggressively investigating and prosecuting individuals and corporations who undermine American competitiveness by stealing what they did not themselves create.” This case further affirms the United States’ commitment to prosecuting the theft of intellectual property through criminal and civil penalties.
Those who perpetrated the thefts live abroad. One has been successfully prosecuted in Austria. U.S. charges are still pending against him, as well as two others who live in China.