It is vital for any business owner to know the answer to this question: “What is a trade secret?” Sometimes, a company’s intellectual property assets are valuable precisely because information about those assets is not generally known to the public. These are considered “trade secrets,” and both California and federal law afford businesses with legal protections for their trade secrets. These laws recognize that when a company loses its proprietary information due to theft or infringement, the results can be disastrous. The company may see its advantage over competitors in the marketplace disappear, leading to critical revenue losses. Worse yet, the company may lose its core technologies that help the business to survive. An experienced California intellectual property lawyer can protect you against this fate and help you take appropriate legal action in state or federal court.
To learn more about how trade secrets are defined under California law, keep reading.
How Does California Law Define a “Trade Secret”?
A trade secret has three main components:
- It gains value from not being generally known by the general public. This value can be actually realized, or it may be potential value.
- It has particular value to others who cannot acquire the information. (E.g., competing businesses.)
- Its secrecy has been maintained through reasonable efforts.
These aspects of a trade secret can make it a valuable intellectual property asset for many businesses. Where trade secrets differ from other types of intellectual property like patents, copyrights, and trademarks is that trade secrets are never formally registered with the government for protection. Another difference between trade secrets and other kinds of intellectual property is that trade secrets are, by definition, not publicly recognized.
CUTSA Definition of “Trade Secrets”
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) defines a “trade secret” as a type of intellectual property. Federal lawmakers recognized the importance of protecting trade secrets in 2016 when they passed the Defend Trade Secrets Act (DTSA) and gave businesses and individuals a right to file a civil suit when their trade secrets are misappropriated. Under the DTSA, any information that derives independent economic value from the fact that it cannot be easily ascertained by others may qualify for protection as a trade secret.
The California Uniform Trade Secrets Act (CUTSA) defines a “trade secret” even more broadly as any information that is not generally known to others who might find it valuable. This means that there is no substantial limit to the types of information that may be protected under California’s trade secret law. Common examples of trade secrets include client lists, company financial data, internal forecasts and projections, advertising plans, designs and other technical plans, formulas, manufacturing techniques, and computer source code. One of the most famous examples of a trade secret is the formula for Coca-Cola.
Basically, if the information is the sort that a competitor would need to spend money or time to discover, then it probably qualifies as a trade secret. But if even one person outside the business already knows the information without it having been disclosed, then it might not be a trade secret.
Proving Trade Secret Misappropriation in California
Winning a trade secret claim requires the plaintiff to first establish that the confidential information at issue does, in fact, qualify as a trade secret. Next, the plaintiff will have to prove that the defendant misappropriated the data.
As set forth by California law, trade secret misappropriation can include any of the following acts involving confidential information:
- Wrongful acquisition.
- Wrongful use.
- Wrongful disclosure.
A person or entity is deemed to have “misappropriated” a trade secret when they use illegal or improper means to acquire it. This can include theft, bribery, espionage, a misrepresentation, or a breach of duty to maintain the secret. In addition to prohibiting the illegal acquisition of a trade secret, the CUTSA also explicitly bars anyone from disclosing a trade secret without consent of the rightful owner, as well as prohibiting anyone from using a trade secret that was illegally acquired. This means that both the person who took or disclosed the trade secret and the person or company who later used the information may be liable under California trade secret law.
Contact the Los Angeles Trade Secret Lawyers at Tauler Smith LLP
If you are a business owner whose proprietary information was stolen by an ex-employee, disclosed to a competitor, or used by another company, then you may have a valid claim for trade secret misappropriation. Your best move now is to speak with a Los Angeles trade secret lawyer who has experience bringing these claims in California courts. The legal team at Tauler Smith LLP understands the nuances of both federal and state laws addressing trade secrets, and we know how to win trade secret litigation.