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For Certain Not Secret Now: Court Declines to Seal Alleged Trade Secret in Amended Complaint

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed a decision declining to seal information in an amended complaint where the defendant failed to prove that the information was a trade secret. DePuy Synthes Products, Inc. v. Veterinary Orthopedic Implants, Inc., Case No. 20-1514 (Fed. Cir. Mar. 12, 2021) (Dyk, J.)

After DePuy sued Veterinary Orthopedic Implants (VOI) for patent infringement, the district court issued a protective order providing that “supplier . . . names and identifying information” would be treated as “Highly Confidential Material—Attorney Eyes Only.” DePuy later filed an amended complaint containing such information when it joined VOI’s manufacturer as a defendant. The amended complaint disclosed the manufacturer as such and alleged additional facts about the defendants’ relationship. VOI argued that the manufacturer’s identity and additional facts about the VOI-manufacturer relationship should be sealed as trade secrets. DePuy argued that the manufacturer’s identity was already public, but took no position regarding the additional facts. After the district court declined to seal the amended complaint, VOI appealed.

The Federal Circuit first considered whether it had jurisdiction under the collateral order doctrine and whether the district court abused its discretion in denying the motion to seal.

The Federal Circuit found that it had jurisdiction under the collateral order doctrine because:

  • The district court’s order conclusively determined the sealing issue.
  • The sealing issue was important although unrelated to the merits of the infringement claim.
  • Meaningful review after final judgment would be impossible because disclosed information can never be secret again.

On the merits, the Federal Circuit found no abuse of discretion, reasoning that there was no clear error in the district court’s finding that the manufacturer’s identity was not a trade secret where (1) the manufacturer openly advertised itself as an orthopedic manufacturer, (2) the manufacturer and VOI did not have a confidentiality agreement or a confidential relationship giving rise to an implied obligation of confidentiality, and (3) a third-party email suggested that VOI’s relationship with the manufacturer was “known within the relevant community.” The Court further found no abuse of discretion in the district court’s declining to seal the additional allegations despite DePuy’s non-opposition because the district court was required to independently weigh the parties’ interest in confidentiality against the public right of access.

Practice Note: Parties routinely seek sealing of information that may not qualify as formal trade secrets. The district court’s duty to independently evaluate sealing means that parties must be prepared to articulate the particularized harm they will suffer absent sealing or risk the public disclosure of the information, even where the parties agree to treat information confidentially.




Defend Trade Secrets Act Supports Sealing Information on Appeal

Addressing whether purported trade secret information ought to remain under seal on appeal, the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled in a one-judge order that the Defend Trade Secrets Act (DTSA) provided a statutory basis that overcame the presumption of public access. Magnesium Machine, LLC v. Terves, LLC, Case No. 20-3779 (6th Cir. Dec. 10, 2020) (McKeague, J.)

This case presented the issue of what part of a record may be sealed on appeal—normally a routine question—in litigation that was anything but routine. According to the verified complaint, Magnesium Machine discovered a particular salt-based treatment for use on oil and gas tools. According to Magnesium, in the course of litigating a patent infringement suit against one of Magnesium’s suppliers, Terves and its counsel, McDonald Hopkins, obtained information reflective of Magnesium’s alleged trade secret from a third party pursuant to subpoena. Specifically, Magnesium claimed that particular language in a settlement agreement disclosed Magnesium’s trade secrets. The settlement agreement had been produced by the third party without any confidentiality designation. The complaint alleged violations of the federal DTSA and Oklahoma and Ohio state trade secrets acts.

Invoking the seizure provisions of the DTSA, Magnesium sought and obtained an ex parte order directing the US Marshals to seize Terves’s electronic equipment, including devices at Terves’ president’s home. That order did not last long. Following an evidentiary hearing (in which Terves participated) the day after the order was issued, the district court vacated the seizure order because Magnesium had not demonstrated misappropriation of a trade secret.

To appeal, Magnesium requested express findings of fact and conclusions of law. The district court explained that Terves and its lawyers subpoenaed materials in good faith, that the settlement agreement was produced without restriction (such as a confidentiality marking), that Terves’s lawyers did not impermissibly share the settlement agreement with Terves employees and that upon objection by Magnesium, Terves deleted its copies of the settlement agreement. Thereafter, on motions to dismiss, the district court concluded that Magnesium failed to allege misappropriation and that the litigation privilege protected Terves’ counsel.

Terves sought and obtained attorneys’ fees against Magnesium and its counsel for proceeding in bad faith. The district court found that Magnesium had every reason to know that its claims were baseless, because it was “well aware at the time the suit was filed that Defendants had received the allegedly secret information through legitimate discovery means and that it was provided to them without description.” Moreover, claiming that a three-word phrase in the settlement agreement purportedly disclosed trade secret information was “an intentional exaggeration/misrepresentation.” Indeed, other public statements had provided far more detail than the purportedly secret phrase, according to the district court.

On appeal, although Terves contended that the purported trade secret did not qualify as a secret, in the exercise of caution and on Magnesium’s request, Terves nonetheless sought to file a brief under seal. Judge David McKeague, acting on behalf of the Sixth Circuit, agreed that it was appropriate to seal the information, [...]

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Use of Infringing Product, Misappropriated Trade Secrets May Continue—for a Licensing Fee

The US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed a district court’s stay of a permanent injunction against copyright infringement and trade secret misappropriation, permitting the infringer to continue use of an infringing product and misappropriated trade secrets but requiring the infringer to pay a licensing fee. ECIMOS, LLC v. Carrier Corp., Case Nos. 19-5436, -5519 (6th Cir. Aug. 21, 2020) (Boggs, J.).

Carrier sold HVAC systems. ECIMOS designed and sold a quality-control-testing system that assessed each HVAC unit at the end of Carrier’s assembly line. ECIMOS’s system consisted of a software program, associated hardware and a database that stored results of runtests performed by the system. Carrier paid ECIMOS to maintain and periodically upgrade its software system. ECIMOS licensed Carrier to use the system but prohibited unauthorized copying, distributing or creating derivative works based in whole or in part on the software.

Years into the relationship, ECIMOS upgraded its software to run on a new operating system. ECIMOS expected Carrier to agree to the proposed upgrade just as it had done previously. Unbeknownst to ECIMOS and without its consent, Carrier had already installed ECIMOS’s software directly onto the new operating system. Carrier started a venture with a third party, Amtec, to develop a new quality-control software and storage database to replace the ECIMOS system.

ECIMOS sued Carrier for violating the copyright on the ECIMOS system’s database, breaching the parties’ software-licensing agreement and misappropriating ECIMOS’s trade secrets. At trial, ECIMOS alleged that Carrier improperly shared ECIMOS’s copyrights and trade secrets with Amtec, allowing Amtec to develop a competing system. The jury agreed, finding that the competing system incorporated ECIMOS’s trade secrets. The jury determined that Carrier infringed the copyright on ECIMOS’s runtest database script source code, that ECIMOS held a trade secret in its software source code and its assembled hardware drawings and wiring diagrams, and that Carrier misappropriated those trade secrets by sharing them with Amtec. The jury awarded ECIMOS copyright and contract damages.

The district court also imposed a permanent injunction against Carrier’s use of the infringing Amtec database, but stayed the injunction until Carrier developed a noninfringing database. The court also enjoined Carrier from further disclosure of ECIMOS’s trade secrets, but did not enjoin Carrier from using those trade secrets. To the contrary, the district court appointed a special master to supervise the redesign and permitted Carrier to continue using the infringing database that incorporated ECIMOS’s trade secrets until the redesigned system was complete. The district court further required Carrier to pay ECIMOS the licensing fees that ECIMOS would have charged in the course of an ongoing, mutually agreeable licensing relationship. ECIMOS objected to the stay and appealed.

ECIMOS argued that the stay was an abuse of discretion, that the injunction should have prohibited Carrier from using (not just disclosing) ECIMOS’s trade secrets, and that the injunction should have prohibited Carrier’s disclosure and use of ECIMOS’s assembled hardware, not just the hardware drawings and wiring diagrams. The Sixth Circuit disagreed, affirming in full the district court’s [...]

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USPTO Conducting Patent Eligibility Jurisprudence Study

At the request of Senators Thom Tillis (R-NC), Marie Hirono (D-HI), Tom Cotton (R-AR) and Chris Coons (D-DE), the US Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO) is undertaking a study on the current state of patent eligibility jurisprudence in the United States and how the current jurisprudence has impacted investment and innovation, particularly in critical technologies like quantum computing, artificial intelligence, precision medicine, diagnostic methods and pharmaceutical treatments. On July 9, 2021, the USPTO issued a Federal Register Notice seeking public input on these matters to assist in preparing the study. The deadline for submitting written comments is September 7, 2021.

The Federal Register Notice included 13 concerns on which comments were requested:

  1. Explain how the current state of patent eligibility jurisprudence affects the conduct of business in your technology areas, and identify your technology areas.
  2. Explain what impacts you have experienced as a result of the current state of patent eligibility jurisprudence in the United States. Include impacts on as many of the following areas as you can, identifying concrete examples and supporting facts when possible:
    1. patent prosecution strategy and portfolio management;
    2. patent enforcement and litigation;
    3. patent counseling and opinions;
    4. research and development;
    5. employment;
    6. procurement;
    7. marketing;
    8. ability to obtain financing from investors or financial institutions;
    9. investment strategy;
    10. licensing of patents and patent applications;
    11. product development;
    12. sales, including downstream and upstream sales;
    13. innovation and
    14. competition.
  3. Explain how the current state of patent eligibility jurisprudence in the United States impacts particular technological fields, including investment and innovation in any of the following technological areas:
    1. quantum computing;
    2. artificial intelligence;
    3. precision medicine;
    4. diagnostic methods;
    5. pharmaceutical treatments and
    6. other computer-related inventions (e.g., software, business methods, computer security, databases and data structures, computer networking, and graphical user interfaces).
  4. Explain how your experiences with the application of subject matter eligibility requirements in other jurisdictions, including China, Japan, Korea, and Europe, differ from your experiences in the United States.
  5. Identify instances where you have been denied patent protection for an invention in the United States solely on the basis of patent subject matter ineligibility, but obtained protection for the same invention in a foreign jurisdiction, or vice versa. Provide specific examples, such as the technologies and jurisdictions involved, and the reason the invention was held ineligible in the United States or other jurisdiction.
  6. Explain whether the state of patent eligibility jurisprudence in the United States has caused you to modify or shift investment, research and development activities, or jobs from the United States to other jurisdictions, or to the United States from other jurisdictions. Identify the relevant modifications and their associated impacts.
  7. Explain whether the state of patent eligibility jurisprudence in the United States has caused you to change business strategies for protecting your intellectual property (e.g., shifting from patents to trade secrets, or vice versa). Identify the changes and their associated impacts.
  8. Explain whether you have changed your behavior with regard to filing, purchasing, licensing, selling, or maintaining patent applications and patents in the United States as a result of [...]

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