In 2010, Hewlett-Packard sued its former CEO for threatened misappropriation of trade secrets, after he took a position as President of Oracle. In 2012, Taiwan’s Acer, Inc. sued its former CEO for breach of a non-competition agreement after he quit and took a top position at Lenovo. And last month, criminal charges were filed against five employees of Taiwan’s HTC Corp., for allegedly conspiring to form a competing company using secrets stolen from HTC.
Employers often spend considerable resources recruiting, hiring and training key talent, only to face potential disaster when those trusted employees quit to join a competitor, often taking sensitive files on their way out the door. Even if they don’t act in bad faith, departing employees carry critical, confidential information inside their heads, which can’t be deleted. Fortunately, various remedies may be available for the former employer, from confidentiality and non-competition agreements, to lawsuits for actual or threatened misappropriation of trade secrets and the doctrine of inevitable disclosure.
But there’s a conflict. Employers have a legitimate interest in preventing misappropriation of trade secrets, while employees have a legitimate interest in utilizing knowledge and skills gained through work experience and working for employers of their choosing. Courts and lawmakers have long struggled to establish a balance between those competing interests. Below is a general overview of relevant laws and practices in the U.S. and Asia.
Here we go again. Last week, police detained three employees of Taiwanese smartphone-maker HTC, raided their homes and offices and seized their computers and cellphones to search for evidence, as HTC is accusing them of stealing sensitive technology to sell to HTC’s competitors.
The three men – a vice president of product design, director of R&D, and senior designer – are accused of stealing secrets relating to HTC’s Sense 6.0 smartphones, which are scheduled for launch later this year. The accused purportedly formed design companies in Taiwan and China and began speaking with Chinese phone-makers about selling them the stolen secrets. They are also accused of defrauding HTC out of more than US$300,000, by use of forged documents, apparently to raise capital for their new venture.
Taiwan has seen similar cases before. In 2012, the nation’s second largest LCD panel-maker, AU Optronics (AUO), sued two of its former high-level executives for stealing trade secrets, which they took to their new employer, a major competitor in China. In 2011, Taiwan IC-design company, MediaTek, sued a former employee for stealing secrets and sharing them with his new employer. And, most famously, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC) battled with its Chinese rival, Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp. (SMIC), for almost a decade over allegations that SMIC poached numerous employees, who stole critical information that SMIC used to illegally manufacture competing products.
In the United States, attorneys, judges and others have struggled for decades to determine when, if ever, computer programs or software should be eligible for patent protection. In the 1960’s the U.S. Patent Office declared that software could not be patented. Since then, a series of court decisions have rejected that view and established that one may definitely patent software in the U.S., although the exact requirements remain unclear and critics increasingly demand that it should not be patentable.
As a starting point, 35 U.S.C. §101 provides that any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or new and useful improvement thereof, is eligible for patent protection, subject to other requirements of the Patent Act (that is, §101 is just the threshold test for patentability). Congress has never stated any limitations to the patentable categories of §101 and case law has only recognized three categories of exceptions – subject matter that may not be patented: laws of nature, physical phenomena and abstract ideas. Computer software is often found to be ineligible on the ground that it comprises abstract ideas, but courts have struggled to provide a precise formula or definition for abstract ideas.
When amicable efforts fail to resolve a dispute concerning patent rights and the aggrieved party wishes to pursue the matter further, it usually initiates litigation or perhaps a U.S. International Trade Commission (“ITC”) investigation, despite the huge costs of such options, because it may assume no other plausible alternatives exist to achieve the desired objectives.
Articles, such as this one, tout arbitration as an alternative: faster, cheaper and more confidential than litigation, with other benefits as well. Apparently the U.S. Supreme Court agrees, having described the Federal Arbitration Act (9 U.S.C. §1, et seq.) as evidencing a “national policy favoring arbitration” (Nitro-Lift v. Howard); and recognized “an emphatic federal policy in favor of arbitral dispute resolution” (Marmet Health Care v. Brown). Likewise, the Patent Act provides at 35 U.S.C. §294(a) that any arbitration clause contained in a patent agreement shall be presumed valid, irrevocable and enforceable.
However, in actual practice, relatively few patent disputes are submitted to arbitration. Worldwide, only a few hundred requests to arbitrate patent disputes are filed each year. By comparison, in 2012 more than 5,000 patent lawsuits were filed in U.S. District Courts, not to mention courts of other nations. So what’s the problem? If arbitration is so great, why are so few patent disputes resolved in arbitration? More important, are patent litigants missing something? Should they rely on arbitration more often?
On March 28, Apple Inc. appeared in court in Shanghai to defend charges that Siri, its voice-recognition, personal-assistant software, allegedly infringes a Chinese patent. The plaintiff and owner of the patent, Zhizhen Internet Technology Co., claims its version of the software has over 100 million users in China and is requesting the court to ban all manufacturing or sales of Apple’s product in China.
This was not the first time Apple faced patent infringement claims in China. Last summer a Taiwanese man sued the company in China for alleged infringement relating to its Facetime technology; in 2010 a Shenzhen company threatened to sue concerning iPad design; in 2008 Apple was sued for the iPod; and in 2012, a Hong Kong company launched GooPhone I5, an android-based replica of the iPhone 5, reportedly based on leaked photos of the iPhone. GooPhone claimed to have patented the design and threatened to sue Apple if it dared to sell the genuine article in China.
Nor is Apple alone. French company, Schneider Electric lost a $48 million patent infringement verdict in China and Samsung lost one for $7.4 million. Sony, Phillips, Canon and Dell have all had their battles and GooPhone sells knockoffs of other smartphones in China with apparent impunity. Of course it’s possible in some cases the Chinese technology may be first and the Chinese patent legitimate. However, foreign companies face a growing risk that Chinese entities may unscrupulously patent foreign technology in China and demand a toll to do business there. Not only that, but in coming years companies will increasingly face challenges worldwide from the growing landslide of patents coming out of China.
In January 2013, Taiwan’s InnoLux Corp. filed an appeal with the Federal Circuit, requesting the Court to overturn an award of enhanced post-judgment (“ongoing”) royalties that appeared to be enhanced, at least in part, because the trial judge took offense at an out-of-court remark made by the defendant’s CEO, after losing at trial.
Specifically, in the case of Mondis Technology v. ChiMei InnoLux Corp., et al., No. 2:11-CV-378 (E.D. Tex. Sept. 30, 2011), a jury found InnoLux liable for infringing certain computer monitor patents and ordered it to pay $15,000,000 in damages, plus royalties of 0.5% per monitor sold in the final months prior to judgment, for which sales figures had not yet been available.
Following the verdict, the defendant’s CEO was quoted in a Taiwan newspaper as having said, “The issue of patent infringement is being taken too seriously sometimes.”
For several years I was the lead attorney at a Taiwan company that manufactures technology and consumer electronic products, from light-emitting diodes to liquid-crystal displays. Every month we received a new demand for patent licensing or indemnification and it was my job to dispose of them at no cost, without licensing, litigation, or outside counsel. Usually it was possible, but occasionally we found ourselves mired in full-blown litigation.
It’s no secret patent litigation costs are immense. According to the American Intellectual Property Law Association, the cost of an average patent lawsuit, where $1 million to $25 million is at risk, is $1.6 million through the end of discovery and $2.8 million through final disposition. Adding insult to injury, more than 60% of all patent suits are filed by non-practicing entities (NPEs) that manufacture no products and rely on litigation as a key part of their business model.
However, whether one represents a plaintiff or defendant, manufacturer or NPE, there are actions one can take to help manage the costs. Below are some general guidelines.