The plaintiff in a trade secret misappropriation case must prove it has a trade secret and the defendant misappropriated the trade secret. Humphreys & Associates, Inc. v. Cressman, 2015 WL 12698428 (C.D. Cal. Aug. 31, 2015) (“To succeed on a claim of trade secret misappropriation, the plaintiff must establish that (1) the plaintiff owned a trade secret, (2) the defendant acquired, disclosed, or used the plaintiff’s trade secret through improper means….). Defendants usually misappropriate a trade secret by using the same secret they stole from the plaintiff. See, e.g., WHIC LLC v. NextGen Labs., Inc., 341 F. Supp. 3d 1147 (D. Haw. 2018) (enjoining the defendant because it used the plaintiff’s trade secret customer list to contact the plaintiff’s customers and generate business). However, misappropriation is not limited in this respect. Defendants may misappropriate a trade secret by using the secret to test a product or create a derivative product. Peter Mavrick is a Fort Lauderdale business litigation attorney. The Mavrick Law Firm represents businesses and their owners in breach of contract litigation and related claims of fraud, non-compete agreement litigation, trade secret litigation, trademark infringement litigation, employment law, and other legal disputes in federal and state courts and in arbitration.
Trade secret statutes typically define misappropriation as disclosure or use of a trade secret without consent. See 18 U.S.C.A. § 1839. But this begs the question – what constitutes use? Mere possession of a trade secret without more probably does not satisfy the use requirement. However, use is not limited to implementing or selling the exact same trade secret stolen from the plaintiff. Derivative uses of the plaintiff’s trade secret can constitute use, and therefore, misappropriation. For example, a defendant that experiments with the plaintiff’s trade secret uses that trade secret even if the experiments do not yield a commercial product. See 02 Micro Intern. Ltd. v. Monolithic Power Sys., Inc., 399 F. Supp. 2d 1064 (N.D. Cal. 2005) (“Based on the California and federal cases presented by the parties, the Court concludes that internal experimentation with trade secret information not resulting in a market product can constitute use.”). Defendants also misappropriate trade secrets when they use a substantial portion of the trade secret even if the defendants independently improved that trade secret. BladeRoom Group Ltd. v. Emerson Elec. Co., 331 F. Supp. 3d 977 (N.D. Cal. 2018), vacated and remanded on other grounds, 11 F.4th 1010 (9th Cir. 2021), and vacated and remanded on other grounds, 20 F.4th 1231 (9th Cir. 2021) (holding that “use of any substantial portion of the secret is sufficient to subject the actor to liability” and an “actor is liable for using the trade secret with independently created improvements or modifications if [they]… derived from the trade secret.”).
Courts broadly interpret use to protect trade secrets and effectuate trade secret law. “If trade secret law were not flexible enough to encompass modified or even new products that are substantially derived from the trade secret of another, the protections that law provides would be hollow indeed.” Dev. Corp. v. Nat’l Chem. Co., Inc., 87 F.3d 937, 944 (7th Cir. 1996). In fact, a strong impetus for enjoining defendants in trade secret actions results from the desire to prevent unfair head starts. Lamb–Weston, Inc. v. McCain Foods, Ltd., 941 F.2d 970, 974 (9th Cir. 1991) (noting that a trade secret injunction “seeks to protect the secrecy of misappropriated information and to eliminate any unfair head start the defendant may have gained”). Courts prevent defendants from selling products that are inextricably connected with the plaintiff’s trade secrets because the defendant cannot unlearn or abandon the misappropriated technology. See 02 Micro Intern. Ltd., 399 F. Supp. 2d 1064 (citing General Electric Co. v. Sung, 843 F. Supp. 776 (D. Mass. 1994)). Therefore, defendants cannot evade trade secret liability by incorporating the plaintiff’s trade secret into a new or different product. See, e.g., Speech Tech. Assocs. v. Adaptive Commc’n Sys., 1994 WL 449032 (N.D. Cal. Aug. 16, 1994) (finding misappropriation where some of the technology used in the offending new products was different from that claimed in the trade secret, but most of the functional aspects of the trade secret technology were incorporated).
Peter Mavrick is a Fort Lauderdale business litigation lawyer, and represents clients in Miami, Boca Raton, and Palm Beach. This article does not serve as a substitute for legal advice tailored to a particular situation.