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In Good Hands: Compilation of Publicly Available Information Can Still Be a Trade Secret

The US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed a district court decision, finding that a compilation of customer-related information, even if publicly available, is a protectable trade secret. Allstate Insurance Co. v. Fougere, Case No. 22-1258 (1st Cir. Aug. 29, 2023) (Gelpi, Lynch, Thompson, JJ.)

Allstate hired two agents—James Fougere and Sarah Brody-Isbill—to sell the company’s auto and casualty insurance products in Massachusetts. In connection with their employment, both agents signed exclusive employment agreements that imposed numerous responsibilities, including an obligation to maintain information identified by Allstate as confidential, an undertaking not to misuse or improperly disclose the information and a promise to return the information to Allstate when their agency relationships terminated. Allstate eventually terminated its agreement with the agents because of noncompliance with Allstate regulations and Massachusetts state law.

After the agreements were terminated, Allstate believed the agents had retained confidential information belonging to Allstate and had been using it to solicit Allstate customers. Allstate ultimately learned that the agents had kept confidential Allstate spreadsheets that contained the names of thousands of Allstate customers, along with their renewal dates, premiums, types of insurance, Allstate policy numbers, driver’s license numbers, home addresses, phone numbers and email addresses.

Allstate filed suit against the former agents, bringing claims under both Massachusetts law and the federal Defend Trade Secrets Act (DTSA). The agents brought counterclaims under Massachusetts law, alleging that Allstate failed to provide adequate notice before their terminations, misappropriated information that belonged to the agents and wrongfully interfered with the agents’ contractual relations by engaging in bad-faith business practices. On summary judgment, the district court found that the agents misappropriated Allstate’s trade secrets and dismissed the agents’ counterclaims. The agents appealed.

The agents argued that the customer information was available from various publicly available sources and therefore did not constitute a trade secret. The First Circuit disagreed, explaining that the compilation of publicly available information could constitute trade secrets, particularly where attempts to duplicate that information would be “immensely difficult.” The Court also found that the factual record suggested that not all of the customer information was publicly available—and certainly not in the same compilation as it would be from Allstate.

The agents also argued that the customer information had no economic value. In analyzing this argument, the First Circuit looked to the employment agreements between the former agents and Allstate, which specifically stated that the misuse of Allstate’s confidential information would cause “irreparable damages” to Allstate. The employment agreements also provided a mechanism for terminated agents to sell their “economic interest” back to Allstate. The Court also relied on its finding that this sort of information would be valuable to Allstate’s competitors in attempting to market policies to Allstate customers so that the competitor could offer lower pricing. Taken together, the Court found that the customer data had economic value.

The agents next argued that Allstate had not sufficiently protected the customer information. The First Circuit, affirming the district court, found that Allstate had multiple protections in place. [...]

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Nitpicking Allowed When Determining Statutory Damages

On the second round of a copyright dispute, the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed in part, reversed in part and remanded (again) to the district court to apply the “independent economic value test” handed down by the Court in the first iteration of the dispute to determine what constitutes as “one work” for purposes of calculating statutory damages where a jury finds infringement on multiple works registered in a single copyright application. Amy Lee Sullivan, dba Design King v. Flora Inc., Case No. 15-cv-298 (7th Cir. Mar. 31, 2023) (Flaum, Scudder, Eve, JJ.)

In 2013, graphic design artist Amy Sullivan sued herbal supplemental company Flora for copyright infringement after Flora used Sullivan’s illustrations in a manner exceeding the scope of the parties’ license agreement. The district court instructed the jury that Sullivan could receive separate statutory awards for 33 acts of infringement on 33 individual illustrations, which were the subject of two separate US copyright registrations, as compilations. The jury issued a statutory damages award of $3.6 million. Flora appealed.

In its decision on the first appeal, the Seventh Circuit adopted the independent economic value test to address the standard for determining whether multiple related works of authorship are each entitled to a separate statutory damages award, or if the related works constitute one compilation warranting only a single statutory damages award. Because the record in Sullivan’s case was insufficient to make that determination and assess proper damages, the Seventh Circuit remanded to the district court to determine whether Sullivan’s illustrations had standalone “distinct and discernable value to the copyright holder.”

On remand, the district court found that Flora waived several arguments challenging the independent economic value of certain of Sullivan’s illustrations, and therefore entered the same jury verdict. Flora appealed again.

After a lengthy analysis on the scope of remand, the Seventh Circuit found that the district court violated its mandate on remand because it did not put the independent economic value assessment to a jury, and instead decided the factual issue on the same record the appeals court had previously found insufficient. The Court then moved to its summary judgment analysis and reiterated the independent economic value test for considering whether Sullivan’s 33 illustrations constituted 33 individual works or instead were parts of two compilations. The Court articulated several relevant factors that went into its totality of the circumstances analysis, including whether the copyright holder marketed or distributed the works independently or as a compendium, whether the works were produced together or separately, how the works were registered for copyright protection and, ultimately, whether the market assigned value to the works.

The Seventh Circuit concluded that Flora raised facts and arguments relating to the independent economic value test that were within the scope of remand and not waived. Flora was not prohibited from arguing several primary positions. First, Flora noted that it provided Sullivan with only two invoices for both “illustration collections,” and Sullivan registered the illustrations in two compilation copyrights, [...]

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South Carolina Supreme Court Cannot Find “Economic Value” to Support Trade Secret

The South Carolina Supreme Court (S.C. Supreme Court) affirmed a state Court of Appeals finding that information taken by a minority LLC member did not have the requisite independent value to be considered a “trade secret” under the state’s Trade Secrets Act. Wilson v. Gandis, Case No. 27980 (S.C. June 3, 2020) (James, C.J.).

In response to what the trial court classified as an “unconscionable,” “brazen,” “classic squeeze-out,” Wilson brought an action against his business partners, Gandis and Shirley, along with Carolina Custom Converting (CCC), a broker of industrial film materials. Wilson was a 45% member of CCC, while Gandis and Shirley were 45% and 10% members respectively. Starting in 2011, Gandis and Shirley made multiple efforts to remove Wilson as a member of CCC. The laundry list of “oppressive acts” cited by the trial court included Gandis and Shirley’s (1) withholding guaranteed monthly distributions to Wilson, (2) monitoring Wilson’s private emails, (3) limiting Wilson’s access to CCC financials, (4) terminating Wilson’s family healthcare plan, (5) surreptitiously forming a competing business, (6) funneling money to Gandis through inflated rent payments to Gandis-owned properties and (7) attempting to physically remove Wilson from his own office using a police officer. In response to these acts, Wilson left his office with his company laptops and Blackberry, which contained information about CCC clients. The trial court and Court of Appeals found for Wilson, forcing Gandis and Shirley to buy out Wilson’s share of CCC and denying all of their counterclaims against Wilson. CCC, Gandis and Shirley filed petitions for writ of certiorari to the S.C. Supreme Court, which were granted.

The issue on certiorari was whether the trial court erred in finding CCC failed to prove its trade secret misappropriation claim against Wilson (and his subsequent employers) under the South Carolina Trade Secrets Act. In a relatively short analysis, the S.C. Supreme Court found that the trial court did not err in finding CCC failed to prove its trade secret misappropriation claim against Wilson. The South Carolina Trade Secrets Act defines a “trade secret” as information that “derives independent economic value … from not being generally known to … the public [and efforts are made] to maintain its secrecy.” The Court applied its own  precedent requiring an initial analysis of “the extent to which the [alleged trade secret] is known outside of his business and … the difficulty with which the information could be properly acquired … by others.” Relying on trial testimony by two “experienced film brokers” who stated that the type of business information taken by Wilson was “widely available,” “ascertainable from trade associations [and] publicly available sources,” and that customers “are free to share” that type of information, the Court held that the record supported the trial court’s finding that the information taken by Wilson “did not have the required independent economic value” to be considered a trade secret. The Court affirmed and remanded on an issue related to the details of Wilson’s buyout from CCC.

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