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Patents and Trade Secrets Aren’t Mutually Exclusive: The Nuanced Nature of Trade Secret Protection

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 [...]

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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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US-China Agreement Supports International Injunction Against Alleged Chinese Counterfeiter Under State Law

Addressing for the first time whether state law has extraterritorial scope, the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld a worldwide preliminary injunction against an alleged Chinese counterfeiter’s use of alleged trade secrets, citing a new US-China trade agreement. AtriCure, Inc. v. Meng, Case No. 20-3264 (6th Cir. Jan. 21, 2021) (McKeague, J.)

AtriCure is an Ohio company that sells surgical tools for the treatment of atrial fibrillation. AtriCure needed a Chinese agent to register and sell its product in China. Dr. Meng became AtriCure’s distributor in China from 2005 to 2017. After Meng signed multiple distribution agreements with AtriCure, including non-compete clauses and confidentiality agreements, he was given access to confidential technical documents describing AtriCure’s products. Unbeknownst to AtriCure, Meng was the president of AtriCure’s Chinese competitor, Med-Zenith. When Med-Zenith released a line of products that were strikingly similar to AtriCure’s in both form and operation, AtriCure sued for trade secret misappropriation under the Ohio Uniform Trade Secrets Act and sought a worldwide preliminary injunction to prevent Meng from continuing to manufacture and sell counterfeit versions of AtriCure’s medical devices. After the district court granted the preliminary injunction, Meng appealed.

Addressing Meng’s arguments on likelihood of success, the Sixth Circuit found that:

  • The district court defined the alleged trade secrets with sufficient specificity because AtriCure had given Meng detailed drawings and manufacturing specifications.
  • The district court had not clearly erred in relying on evidence that AtriCure provided the trade secret information to Meng or that Meng used the information where Med-Zenith had copied its entire product line from AtriCure.
  • The district court had not clearly erred in holding that the production of an adapter that did not copy but still took advantage of AtriCure’s proprietary algorithm (i.e., by allowing Med-Zenith accessories to be used with AtriCure’s system) was likely a misappropriation of trade secrets.

Addressing the extraterritorial aspect of a worldwide injunction, the Sixth Circuit held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in issuing a worldwide injunction because the international reach of the injunction comports with the equities of the case and does not offend international comity. As to the equities, the Court noted that worldwide injunctions are common in trade secret misappropriation cases. As to comity, the Court found that Meng had failed to articulate any conflict and cited a recently signed agreement between the United States and China that “emphasizes trade secret protection” (Economic and Trade Agreement Between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of the People’s Republic of China, Jan. 15, 2020).

Finally, the Court addressed whether the Ohio Uniform Trade Secrets Act itself was entitled to extraterritorial scope. Because Ohio courts had not yet addressed the question, the Court conducted its own statutory interpretation and found that the intent of the statute (“the lodestar of statutory interpretation in Ohio”) favored extraterritorial application “at least in this case.”




Key Takeaways from MWE International Seminar Intellectual Property Session – January 2020

On January 21 and 22, 2020, the 8th annual McDermott International Seminars took place in Osaka and Tokyo. These seminars focused on cross-border M&A, GDPR, intellectual property, global enforcement and other key topics. Lawyers from McDermott’s US and European offices, including Washington, DC; Chicago; New York; Paris; London; Brussels; and Munich, discussed these topics with Japanese companies operating globally. During the International Seminars, the Intellectual Property team discussed insights around emerging technologies and intellectual property.

What follows are key takeaways from the IP session of the seminar. (See highlights from the full Seminar.)

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Party May Not Veil EU Individual’s Information under GDPR at the TTAB

In a rare precedential opinion, the Trademark Trial & Appeal Board (TTAB, Board) ruled that the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) does not apply in Board proceedings. Chicago Mercantile Exchange, Inc. v. Intercontinental Exchange Holdings, Inc., Opposition Nos. 91235909; 91254514 (T.T.A.B. Sept. 27, 2021) (Faint, Interlocutory Attorney).

This was a consolidated proceeding between Chicago Mercantile Exchange and New York Mercantile Exchange (collectively, CME) and Intercontinental Exchange Holdings (ICE) and brought before the TTAB. CME sought to amend the Board’s standard protective order (SPO) to allow in-house access to information and materials designated by ICE as “Confidential – Attorney’s Eyes Only” and asked the TTAB to find that the EU GDPR does not apply in the proceedings.

The Board’s SPO is automatically imposed in all inter partes proceedings. In order for the Board to disturb their SPO, CME needed to show that protection of ICE’s trade secrets will impair CME’s prosecution of its claims. ICE asserted that CME failed to show good cause for modification of the SPO and the Board agreed. As an initial matter, CME failed to provide information sufficient for the Board to determine in-house counsel’s responsibilities, including whether those responsibilities included competitive decision-making such that disclosure to in-house counsel would competitively harm ICE. Secondly, CME failed to clearly demonstrate that there was a need for access to the highly sensitive competitive information to adequately prepare its case. Accordingly, the Board denied CME’s motion to amend the protective order.

CME next raised the issue of whether ICE may redact names, email addresses and other information from documents and electronically stored information (ESI) originating in the European Union prior to its production on the basis that the GDPR requires such redaction. CME argued that because ICE waited more than 18 months to assert this objection, the objection is waived, that CME will be severely prejudiced if ICE’s objection stands and that the GDPR does not apply in inter partes Board proceedings.

For background, the GDPR is an EU regulation made effective May 25, 2018, in order to protect the privacy and security of EU citizens’ personal data by limiting the transfer of such information among member states of the European Union, as well as between the European Union and other countries, including the United States. The broad definition given to “personal data” in the GDPR encompasses “any information relating to an identified or identifiable person.” However, this class of information (an individual’s name, position, job title and email address) is generally required to be produced in discovery pursuant to the Fed. R. Civ. Pro. 26(b)(1).

In this precedential decision, the Board, citing the 1987 Supreme Court case Societe Nationale Industrielle Aerospatiale v. U.S. Dist. Court, established that a foreign country’s law precluding disclosure of evidence in US courts and tribunals will generally not deprive those courts and tribunals of “the power to order a party subject to its jurisdiction to produce evidence even though the act of production may violate that statute.”. Additionally, the GDPR does not per [...]

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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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Making Waves: Post-Employment Contract Assignment Provision Invalid Under California Law

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit invoked “precedents that are relevant but not directly on point” to examine when employment contract provisions may require assignment of inventions conceived post-employment and without use of the former employer’s confidential information, finding that an intellectual property assignment provision in the employer’s predecessor’s employment agreement was void under California law. Whitewater West Industries, Ltd. v. Richard Alleshouse, et al., Case No. 19-1852 (Fed. Cir. Nov. 19, 2020) (Taranto, J.)

Richard Alleshouse began working for Wave Loch in 2007 as an engineer in the field of large-scale sheet-wave water attractions, which are surf and wave simulators sometimes seen on cruise ships and in water parks. Alleshouse’s many duties for the company included the inspection, assessment and improvement of the company’s wave rides; the development of new rides; and product management of the company’s branded FlowRider sheet wave attraction.

After almost five years with the company, Alleshouse consulted with a lawyer, Yong Yeh, regarding the scope of his employment agreement with Wave Loch, which included intellectual property assignment terms that survived termination of the employment agreement. Following that consultation, Alleshouse and Yeh discussed the idea of starting their own company to design sheet-wave attractions. In August 2012, Alleshouse resigned from Wave Loch, and in October 2012, Alleshouse and Yeh filed provisional patent applications that resulted in three different US patents describing and claiming certain “water attractions involving a flowing body of water on a surface” and “nozzle shapes and configurations which create a flowing body of water over a surface.”

In 2017, Whitewater West Industries, the successor to Wave Loch, sued Alleshouse, Yeh and their new company, Pacific Surf Design, in federal district court in California, asserting claims for breach of contract and correction of inventorship. In particular, Whitewater sought an assignment of the three patents under the terms of Alleshouse’s employment contract with Wave Loch, and claimed that Yeh was improperly listed as an inventor on each of the three patents. The district court ruled for Whitewater and found that the intellectual property assignment provision in Alleshouse’s employment agreement was valid and thus breached due to the failure to assign the patent rights at issue. Alleshouse appealed.

Alleshouse challenged the employment agreement’s intellectual property assignment provision as invalid under California Labor Code § 16600, which prohibits any contract provision that restrains a person from a lawful profession, trade or business, and under § 2870(a), which prohibits requiring an employee to assign over any invention that an employee developed entirely on her own time without using the employer’s equipment, supplies, facilities or trade secret information (with certain enumerated exceptions for employee inventions related to the employer’s business or the employee’s work for the business). The parties agreed on two factual points that were important to the Federal Circuit’s analysis on appeal: that the inventions at issue were not conceived until after Alleshouse left his job at Wave Loch, and that Alleshouse did not use any trade secret or confidential information belonging to Wave [...]

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Administrative Patent Judges – You’re Fired (At Will and Without Cause)

The en banc US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit declined to review its October 2019 panel decision holding the appointment of administrative patent judges (APJs) at the US Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) unconstitutional because APJs are appointed as if they are “inferior officers” but vested with authority that is reserved for Senate-confirmed “principal officers” under the Constitution’s Appointments Clause. Arthrex, Inc. v. Smith & Nephew, Inc., Case No. 18-2140 (Fed. Cir. Mar. 23, 2020) (per curiam) (Moore, J., joined by O’Malley, Reyna and Chen, JJ., concurring) (Dyk, J., joined by Newman, Wallach and Hughes, JJ., dissenting).

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