In an indictment unsealed last week, the U.S. Department of Justice charged two companies – one based in China and the other in Taiwan – as well as three individuals, with trade secret theft, conspiracy to commit trade secret theft, economic espionage, and other related crimes. These charges are the latest in a recent string of similar prosecutions, as U.S. officials have sought to combat the threat of Chinese economic espionage against American technology companies, defense contractors, and other entities.

The indictment claims that defendants stole trade secrets from U.S.-based Micron Technologies, Inc., relating to the research and development of dynamic random-access memory (DRAM), a technology used to store data in electronic devices. DRAM had been identified by the Department of Commerce as an “essential component of U.S. military systems.” According to the indictment, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has “publicly identified the development of DRAM technology as a national economic priority because PRC companies had not been able to develop technologically advanced DRAM production capabilities, and PRC electronics manufacturers relied on producers outside the PRC to supply DRAM.”

The indictment claims that United Microelectronics Corporation (UMC) (a semiconductor company headquartered in Taiwan) and Fujian Jinhua Integrated Circuit, Co., Ltd. (a PRC-funded company dedicated to the development and manufacture of DRAM) entered into a technology cooperation agreement to develop DRAM for a product described as “32nm and 32Snm DRAM.” The companies subsequently recruited three former Micron employees, including the former head and two former employees of Micron’s Taiwan subsidiary responsible for making DRAM, all of whom left Micron to work for UMC in 2015 and/or 2016. The indictment further claims that prior to leaving Micron, the former employees downloaded and took Micron information pertaining to at least eight different trade secrets, totaling nearly 1,000 files.

According to the indictment, the defendants used the numerous Micron trade secrets to “advance the development of UMC’s F32 DRAM technology,” including filing five patents and a patent application concerning DRAM technology that “contained information that was the same or very similar to technology described in Micron’s trade secrets.”

The indictment follows the recent addition of Jinhua to the Department of Commerce’s “Entity List,” which the Secretary of Commerce stated will limit Jinhua’s “ability to threaten the supply chain for essential components in our military systems.” Notably, the DOJ also filed a civil action seeking an injunction preventing UMC and Jinhua from exporting, selling, or importing to the U.S. any product containing DRAM manufactured by either Jinhua or UMC.

The indictment is the fourth case brought by the DOJ relating to Chinese economic espionage in the last three months. The three other cases are the following:

  • Charges against ten defendants working for the Jiangsu Ministry of State Security (JSSD), alleging conspiracy to steal information from U.S. and European defense contractors relating to aerospace technology (Oct. 30, 2018);
  • Charges against Ji Chaoqun, a Chicago resident, for allegedly assisting JSSD to recruit U.S. engineers and scientists, including U.S. defense contractors (Sept. 25, 2018); and
  • Charges against Xiaoqing Zheng, a GE engineer residing in New York, alleging theft of GE trade secrets relating to turbine technology (Aug. 1, 2018).

In noting that Chinese economic espionage against the U.S. is “increasing rapidly,” Attorney General Sessions has announced a new initiative dedicated to curtailing Chinese theft of U.S. trade secrets. A video of the DOJ’s announcement of the indictment is available here. The flurry of recent activity clearly demonstrates that the DOJ is continuing to increase its policing efforts.

Last week, airplane manufacturer Bombardier filed a complaint against Mitsubishi Aircraft Corporation and former Bombardier employees in the Western District of Washington alleging violations of the federal Defend Trade Secrets Act and the Washington Uniform Trade Secrets Act, tortious interference, and breach of contract. Bombardier claims as trade secrets its designs, testing, and regulatory “certification approach” for obtaining approval from aviation safety agencies, as well as the underlying regulations themselves, which it claims are identified “only after an aircraft manufacturer meets in confidence with certifying authority representatives… to reach agreement on which specific subset of regulations must be satisfied.”

Bombardier alleges its employees were actively recruited to help the defendants obtain regulatory approval for a new line of regional jets, and that several engineers sent confidential Bombardier documents and regulatory certification reports to their personal email accounts in the weeks preceding their departure. Bombardier claims that this information provides invaluable guidance in meeting “innumerable exacting” regulatory standards.

The complaint seeks monetary and punitive damages, as well as injunctions preventing the defendants from using proprietary Bombardier information or recruiting Bombardier personnel.

Noncompete agreements are nothing new, in fact, 18% of all U.S. workers are subject to noncompetes while an estimated 70% of senior executives and 43% of engineers are bound by noncompetes. Employers frequently use noncompetes—which may restrict former employees from working for or starting competing businesses for a set period of time—to protect a company’s goodwill and trade secret information and as an effective tool for retaining talented employees from making a move to a competitor. Employees subject to these agreements may also be subject to a provision that provides for “garden leave,” which requires that an employee who is in the process of terminating their employment stay away from the workplace or work from home or another location during their notice period. In some cases, such “garden time” may not be paid. Recently, Massachusetts weighed in on the issue of “garden leave.” In first-of-its-kind legislation, Massachusetts signed into law House Bill No. 4714 stating that former employees in Massachusetts serving required “garden time” under noncompete agreements may be entitled to pay. Under this legislation, employers are required to pay former workers serving out their “garden leave” at least 50% of the workers’ base salary or, alternatively, provide “mutually-agreed upon consideration.” This reflects a compromise between opponents of noncompete agreements, who argue that they restrict economic growth, and the business community, which views noncompete agreements as necessary to protect legitimate business interests. In addition, this new legislation places Massachusetts squarely in the middle of a divide between states like California, which prohibits noncompete agreements except in certain limited contexts, and the many states that allow for their enforcement. However, as a practical matter, it remains to be seen how frequently former employees on “garden leave” will actually receive compensation since the bill does not define or restrict adequate consideration. Stay tuned…

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.