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.
The Commission on the Theft of American Intellectual Property (IP Commission) released an 89-page report on May 22, 2013 assessing international intellectual property theft with a focus on China’s troubled IP regime and recommendations for changes in U.S. policy responses. The IP Commission is an independent, bi-partisan initiative led by the former Director of National Intelligence and Commander in Chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, Dennis Blair, and the former Ambassador to China and governor of Utah, John M. Huntsman, Jr. The IP Commission is affiliated with the National Bureau of Asian Research based in Seattle.
Recently, three Chinese researchers were charged with taking bribes from Chinese medical and research companies in relation to trade secret theft of NYU’s research on magnetic resonance imaging technology. The NYU study was federally funded. The panel in IP Commission acknowledged that this type of misconduct would still occur but would be reduced if their recommendations were adopted.
Recognizing the large scale IP theft that frequently originates in China, the IP Commission proposes designating the President’s national security adviser as the principal policy coordinator for all actions on the protection of American IP.
Design patents have been making the news. Last summer, Apple’s $1.05 billion verdict against Samsung was famously based, in part, on the finding that Samsung infringed Apple’s rounded-rectangle and edge-to-edge glass designs. Since then, Yamaha, Thule, Oakley, Nike and Spanx, to name just a few, have litigated in the U.S. over the design of headphones, ski racks, sunglasses, footwear and women’s undergarments. And just last month, former head of the USPTO, David Kappos, published an OpEd piece describing design as “the new frontier of intellectual property.”
Nothing has fundamentally changed about the nature of design patents. The first US design patent was granted in 1842. The Statue of Liberty, Coke bottle, Volkswagen Beatle, Stealth Bomber and Star Wars’ Yoda are all protected by design patents. Design patents have long played an important role in consumer electronics, automotive, apparel, jewelry, packaging and other industries.
But industrial design is becoming increasingly important, Mr. Kappos explains, because the increasing functionality of man-made devices brings with it increasing complexity, so innovative companies are constantly seeking superior designs, a convergence of form and function that helps make the complex simple and sets their companies apart; and protecting such designs is critical.
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.
Copyright 2012 – Renee C. Quinn. Taken April 10, 2012.
Not long after it was reported that a Chinese military unit might be responsible for a number of cyber attacks that have taken place on US infrastructure and businesses, the Obama Administration unveiled its strategy to put an end to the theft of US trade secrets by foreign governments and foreign competitors. More specifically, US Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator, Victoria Espinel, who spoke during a recent White House meeting, said that “the Administration will continue to act vigorously to combat the theft of American trade secrets that could be used by foreign companies or foreign governments to gain an unfair commercial advantage over U.S. companies.”
A Five-Step Approach
There were five action items discussed in the strategy document. The first one suggests that more focus should be placed on diplomatic efforts to protect overseas trade secrets. The second item calls for private industry to promote voluntary best practices in order to protect trade secrets. The third action item suggests that domestic law enforcement operations should be enhanced. The fourth item calls for the improvement of domestic legislation. And the final action item seeks to provide more public awareness, as well as stakeholder outreach.
This Thursday was a relatively quiet day for Apple published patent applications, as the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office only released 16 of the documents, which is a fair amount less than usual. Many of the applications listed here focus on improvements to media processing and storage, an area of computer systems which has long been a focus for Apple. Other patent applications include improvements to Mandarin Chinese language translations and methods of grading display screens for light leakage.
Language conversion software has been available for years and is widely accessible through the Internet. Current models of language conversion between any two written languages relies on statistical models of probability that help the software identify probable word combinations based on language used in the corpus, or a large body of texts used as a basis for proper language use in one language.
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