How can a business protect its critical information when an employee goes to work for a competitor? Many employers simply assume that if it deems information “confidential,” the law automatically protects it when an employee leaves and goes to work for a competitor. That’s not necessarily the case. In order to protect its confidential information, such as intellectual property, information, systems, customer lists, pricing information and the like, an employer must take affirmative steps long before the rogue employee leaves to ensure that its information is protected. Such information can be protected from disclosure both under Illinois common law and pursuant to the Illinois Trade Secrets Act (“ITSA”).
An employer’s trade secrets, such as its customer lists, are a protectable interest. An employer has a clear and ascertainable right in protecting its trade secrets. To show information is a trade secret under ITSA, an employer must meet two threshold requirements. First, it must show the information was sufficiently secret to provide the employer with a competitive advantage. Second, the employer must show that it took affirmative measures to stop others from acquiring or using the information. Examples of steps employers typically take to keep information confidential include keeping the information under lock and key, limiting computer access, requiring confidentiality agreements, and other employer efforts to advise employees that the information imparted to them must be kept secret. Establishing this second prong is where employers typically fall short.
Where employers have invested substantial time, money, and effort to obtain a secret advantage, the secret should be protected from an employee who obtains it through improper means. Although employees may take general knowledge or information with them that they developed during their employment, they may not take confidential information, including trade secrets. The taking does not have to be a physical taking by actually copying the names. A trade secret can be misappropriated by physical copying or by memorization. Using memorization to rebuild a trade secret does not transform the trade secret from confidential information into non-confidential information. A trade secret can also be obtained through reverse engineering
Whether and how an employer keeps information secret is one of the most important factors when determining whether information is a trade secret. When information is generally known or understood in an industry, even if it is unknown to the public at large, it does not constitute a trade secret. If a business fully discloses information throughout an industry through a catalog or other literature, it is not considered a trade secret. If the information can be readily duplicated without considerable time, effort, or expense, it is not considered a trade secret. If a customer list, for example, is generally available to all employees and the employees are not required to sign confidentiality agreements, the list is likely not considered a trade secret.
By far the most litigation in this area is over whether an employer’s customer list is a confidential trade secret. Whether customer lists constitute trade secrets largely depends on the facts of each case. Customer lists and other customer information can be considered a protectable trade secret if the information has been developed by the employer over a number of years at great expense and kept under tight security. However, the same type of information is not protectable where it has not been treated as confidential and secret by the employer, was generally available to other employees and known by persons in the trade, could be easily duplicated by reference to telephone directories or industry publications, and where the customers on such lists did business with more than one company or otherwise changed businesses frequently so that their identities were known to the employer’s competitors.
Illinois courts have found that customer lists do not constitute protectable trade secrets where, for example: a) the particular industry was competitive and customers often dealt with multiple companies; b) the employer had failed to produce sufficient evidence to demonstrate that the customer list was subject to reasonable efforts to protect its secrecy; and c) sufficient efforts had not been taken to maintain the list’s secrecy. To be a protectable trade secret, the employer must demonstrate the information it seeks to protect was sufficiently secret to provide it with a competitive advantage. However, for steps to be deemed sufficient to protect a trade secret, extensive steps must be taken to protect both the electronic and hard copies of the purported trade secret.
For more information regarding the protection of a company’s confidential information, please contact:
(312) 368-0100 or firstname.lastname@example.org
February 17, 2018 is fast approaching. Anyone who is anyone in the toy industry will be at Javits Convention Center showcasing the latest and greatest in toy innovation. All businesses in the toy industry are putting the final touches on their displays and their presentations. Is a meeting with the company’s lawyer on the pre-show checklist? If not, why not?
Consulting with the Company’s lawyer may save a company tens, even hundreds of thousands of dollars. The following is a short discussion of some of the items that should be on every toy company’s “To-Do” list prior to attending Day One of the New York Toy Fair.
- Intellectual Property.
At the very least, the company should consider applying for a trademark registration for the name of the company and its products. Unfortunately, the number one thing most companies forget or ignore until there is a legal battle ensuing is to properly protect the Company’s intellectual property, such as its name and the names of its products. Trademarks for product names are fairly inexpensive to search and protect, and yet, may cost a company dearly if those names were to become the subject of a cease and desist letter and resulting federal court infringement litigation. We defended a toy manufacturer in a trademark infringement lawsuit that allegedly infringed a competitor’s trademark. After two years and in excess of $50,000 in legal fees (pretty inexpensive in trademark dispute litigation) the matter was resolved. Consulting with counsel and filing the appropriate trademark applications could have avoided the huge waste of time and expense.
Another form of legal protection often overlooked is copyright for the toy’s design. If the design meets the requirements of a sculptural work, such as a plush toy design, then copyright can be a powerful tool in locking out your competition from the use of designs that are “substantially similar”. Prior to any trade show, toy companies must identify and protect its intellectual property, or risk the very goodwill of the company. Intellectual property can give a company significant value.
- Privacy and Security.
Toy companies, like all companies, must take steps to protect the data of the company, minimize the risk of a breach, and put in place technological and legal measures designed to decrease liability in the event a breach does occur. A comprehensive privacy program including but not limited to updated privacy notices, terms and conditions, internal policies, incident response plans and insurance coverage all geared toward reducing risk of legal liability is imperative if the company is to survive. If the toys being showcased are “smart” or “connected” toys, privacy and security issues involving the Internet of Things will be at the forefront of manufacturers’, retailers’, and consumers’ minds. Retailers seeking to avoid liability undoubtedly will have questions as to how the software works, what, if any, personally identifiable data is collected, how is it being stored, retained and destroyed. Additionally, if a third party vendor will be used to provide software for a smart or connected toy, the company must seek counsel knowledgeable in privacy and security in order to reduce legal risk to the company that may result from the use of such software.
- Labeling / Advertising.
Federal law requires product packaging and certain advertisements for toys and games intended for use by children 12 years of age and under to display cautionary statements regarding choking and other hazards. Safety related labeling and advertising for toys generally depends upon the category of toy and the age of the child for which the toy is intended. It is imperative that toy companies be familiar with these laws and engage counsel who is familiar.
For more information, please contact:
(312) 368-0100 or email@example.com.
John Smith owned a small manufacturing business. One day he received a call from one of his competitors who said he was interested in buying John’s business. John was now 75 and this seemed like the perfect opportunity for him to retire and have that “nest egg” for him live comfortably in retirement.
John met with the buyer and they discussed, in general, John’s business. After the meeting, the buyer presented a letter of intent to John, which proposed a purchase price of $10,000,000, subject to the buyer’s due diligence investigation of John’s business. John felt pleased with the letter of intent and signed and returned it to the buyer.
During a long and protracted (and quite thorough) due diligence, the buyer and his accountants and lawyers examined the business and its books and records. Based upon their examination, they advised the buyer of various legal and financial risks that John’s business was exposed to and which could become issues that the buyer would have to face.
John could not produce all of his current contracts with his customers. The contracts which he had contained provisions which could cause the contracts to be terminated upon a sale of the business or a transfer of the ownership of the business. Their key employees had no employment agreements and could compete with the business once they terminated employment. The leases for the business’s facilities could not be assigned.
Despite the issues with the business, the buyer was still interested in purchasing the business. The bad news was that the revised purchase price was to be $8,500,000 with a significant portion to be held in escrow pending resolution of various legal issues.
The above scenario is very common with small business owners. Bigger companies who regularly acquire smaller companies are “professionals” in the acquisition business. They know exactly what to look for and they know how to “string the seller along” until they present a reduced offer which most sellers feel they have to accept.
If you are thinking of selling your business, make sure that your business is ready to be sold and that you have copies of all contracts and leases and that you understand what they provide and how they will be affected upon a sale. Have written employment agreements with all your “key employees.” Pay attention to your inventory, your accounts receivable and other assets which “drive the sales price.” Protect your intellectual property by obtaining patents, to the extent applicable, and trademarks.
If you are considering selling your business and would like a “legal check-up,” please do not hesitate to contact:
Morris Saunders at:
firstname.lastname@example.org or 312-368-0100.