Addressing the nuanced nature of trade secret protection of patented products, the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed a district court’s trade secret protection determination, finding that the asserted trade secrets were not publicly disclosed and had been adequately protected. Life Spine, Inc. v. Aegis Spine, Inc., Case No. 21-1649 (7th Cir. Aug. 9, 2021) (St. Eve, J.)
The underlying conflict in this case has its roots in a short-lived business relationship between two companies specializing in selling spinal implant devices. Life Spine makes and sells a device called the ProLift Expandable Spacer System. Aegis Spine contracted with Life to distribute Life’s ProLift system to hospitals and surgeons for scheduled surgeries. Under the distribution agreement, Aegis was obligated to protect Life’s confidential information, act as a fiduciary for Life’s property and refrain from reverse engineering the ProLift system. Aegis did not abide by its contractual promises. It gave information about Life’s ProLift system to L&K Biomed, Aegis’s parent company and Life’s direct competitor. L&K used Life’s confidential information to develop a competing spinal implant device. Shortly after L&K’s device appeared on the market, Life sued Aegis for trade secret misappropriation and breach of the distribution agreement. The district court ruled in favor of Life, granting its motion for preliminary injunction against Aegis and its business partners, all of whom could no longer market the competing product. Aegis appealed.
Aegis argued that the injunction rested on the flawed legal conclusion that a company can have trade secret protection on a device that it publicly discloses through patents, displays and sales. The Seventh Circuit disagreed.
While the Court reaffirmed that there can be no trade secret protection in information available in the public domain, it found that such was not the nature of the information sought to be protected in this matter. Rather, the Seventh Circuit agreed with the district court that Life did not publicly disclose the specific information it sought to protect via patenting, displaying and selling its ProLift system.
The ProLift expandable spinal implant consists of the implant (or cage) component and an installer. The cage comprises an upper and lower endplate, a nose and base ramp and an expansion screw. The installer is used to insert the cage into a patient’s spine and expand the affected spinal disc height. Life considers “the precise dimension and measurements of the ProLift components and subcomponents and their interconnectivity” to be confidential trade secrets. The district court found that third parties are unable to access that precise dimensional information without first signing confidentiality agreements, and the information is not available in any of Life’s marketing materials (which include only dimensional approximations) or patents. Life’s ProLift system cannot be purchased by the general public or even handled at industry convention displays without Life’s close supervision. Instead, Life’s distributors sell ProLift directly to hospitals and surgeons for scheduled surgeries only.
The Seventh Circuit noted that “a limited disclosure” does not destroy all trade secret protection on a product, allowing a company [...]