The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) defines trade secrets as information that is generally not known to the public and that has economic value. The holder of this information protects it and others, such as competitors, can generally not get this information — at least not if they use legitimate efforts.
So what happens when a competitor uses illegitimate efforts? That was a question asked in a recent case. The case involved Coca-Cola, a well-known soft drink. Although readers likely worry that the recipe for the iconic drink was at risk, this case takes a turn. It was not the drink recipe, but another trade secret that was stolen: the formulation for a BPA-free coating inside the soda can.
Although arguably not as important as the recipe for the drink itself, the company states the trade secret behind the BPA-free lining recipe cost almost $120 million to develop. If stolen, the business would loose out on recouping this expense.
How was the trade secret stolen?
It is no surprise that a large corporation like this took steps to protect their trade secrets. Only a limited number of workers could view the information. The United States Department of Justice (DOJ) states in a recent release that one of these workers opened files with the information and took photos of the documents. Allegedly, the scientist’s goal was to take this information to a competitor in China. Before she could do so, the DOJ charged her with conspiracy to commit trade secret theft, conspiracy to commit economic espionage, possession of stole trade secrets, economic espionage, and wire fraud. The court convicted the Ph.D. chemist of all these charges on April 22, 2021.
What can other businesses learn from this case?
The case provides an opportunity to review the steps a business can take to protect their trade secrets. In addition to limiting who can view the documents, it may also help to have a plan in place to address any concerns of a misuse of this power.