On May 11, 2016, a new federal trade secrets law called the Defend Trade Secrets Act (DTSA) took effect. Its primary impact is to allow the victims of trade secret misappropriation to sue in federal court. It also provides some new civil remedies that exceed what is usually available under state law. The DTSA will be slotted into the U.S. Criminal Code (chapter 90 of Title 18), which already makes industrial espionage and trade secret theft a federal crime. In terms of what companies have to do to comply, the answer is almost nothing—the sole exception being a change in future employee contracts that is discussed below. In this post I’ll describe and analyze the new law and offer some thoughts about its potential impact on the life sciences industry.
Until now, civil trade secret protection has been entirely a matter of state law. The law is very consistent from state to state, as 47 states have enacted the Uniform Trade Secrets Act (UTSA). The exceptions are New York, Massachusetts, and North Carolina, though the North Carolina statute is generally similar to UTSA. Enforcement actions must usually be brought in state court, though federal courts can take jurisdiction if the plaintiff and defendant are citizens of different states. Even then, however, the federal court must apply state law in deciding the case.
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Earlier this month, my colleagues John Conley, Robert Cook-Deegan, James Evans and I published a policy article in the European Journal of Human Genetics (EJHG) entitled “The next controversy in genetic testing: clinical data as trade secrets.”
The EJHG article is open access so you can read the entire article at the EJHG website, but here is the abstract:
Earlier this week 23andMe, the Silicon Valley-based personal genomics company, was awarded its first patent: US Patent Number 8,187,811, entitled “Polymorphisms associated with Parkinson’s disease”.
23andMe co-founder Anne Wojcicki announced the issuance of the patent via a post on the company’s blog late Monday evening, attempting to strike a tenuous balance between her company’s oft-championed philosophical devotion to providing individuals with “unfettered access to their genomes” and its desire to commercialize the genomic information so many of those very same individuals have shared, free of charge, with 23andMe. With its new patent, 23andMe also injected itself into the middle of what Wojcicki herself described as the “hot debate” surrounding the patentability of “inventions related to genetics.” Wojcicki’s announcement appeared to catch more than a few of the company’s customers by surprise, sparking concern about the company’s intentions on 23andMe’s blog, Twitter and elsewhere, along with rapid and pointed commentaries from Stuart Hogarth and Madeleine Ball, among others.
Of the various questions asked of and about 23andMe and its new patent, these may be the three most common: Where did this patent come from, and why didn’t I hear about it before? What does 23andMe’s patent cover? How is 23andMe going to use its patent? Let’s take each question in turn.
The competitive landscape can be a dangerous place for an early-stage entrepreneur, and even the best business plan can fall prey to imitators unless the entrepreneur is able to protect her business with some type of exclusive rights. Patents can provide powerful protection, and provisional patents are often a good choice for creating early-stage exclusivity. However, no business should overlook the potential value of trade secret protection.
There are two key issues to consider when evaluating trade secret protection: what type of information can an entrepreneur protect and what does she have to do to protect it? In general, any information can be a trade secret if (1) it is non-public information that has value because it is not publicly known and (2) the holder of the information is taking adequate steps to hold it in confidence. Trade secrets can include things as diverse as business plans, business contacts, financial analysis, inventions, formulas, designs and methods.
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