A trade secret is any idea, formula, process, pattern, physical device, or compilation that:
- Gives the owner of the trade secret a competitive edge in his industry and
- Is protected in a way that prevents competitors or the public from learning about the secret.
The intentional theft of trade secrets is a crime according to state and federal laws. It is considered a white collar crime.
The Economic Espionage Act of 1996 (EEA) is a federal law criminalizing the theft of trade secrets. Under the EEA, trade secret theft includes:
- Receiving the trade secret
- Intentionally stealing the secret
- Copying the trade secret
According to the Act, the U.S. Attorney General can prosecute any individual or business involved in the misappropriation of trade secrets. A number of states, such as Alabama and California, have also adopted the EEA into their state laws.
It is not a crime for a person to figure out the information designated as a trade secret on their own without using access to the company’s source of the trade secret. An example of this would be a person figuring out the exact ingredients for a recipe that is designated as a trade secret by experimenting in their kitchen at home instead of consulting the written recipe in the company’s database.
Punishment for an EEA conviction may include:
- Up to 10 years in prison and $500,000 fine for an individual found guilty
- $5,000,000 fine for a corporation found guilty under the EEA
- Forfeiture of any proceeds and property earned by stealing trade secrets
- $10,000,000 fine for a foreign agent or country that benefited from the trade secret, and up to 15 years imprisonment for the person involved in the theft
Each state may have its own punishments for stealing trade secrets.
Yes, consulting with a criminal lawyer about the charges being brought against you will help you with your case. Stealing trade secrets is a serious crime with a long prison sentence and hefty fines. An experienced attorney will help you choose the best defense to fight the charge.