Over the course of the next few weeks and months, we intend to write a number of blog posts about various forms of civil litigation that could arise in future in the cannabis industry. This is the first, and is focused on trade secret litigation.
For those of you who haven’t read some of our earlier posts on trade secret law, here’s a short recap of what trade secrets even are. A trade secret is virtually any form of information, formula, device, method, etc. that is kept secret, and that derives an independent economic value from being kept secret. For example, a cannabis cultivator invents a new process to cultivate cannabis more quickly. That process is valuable not only intrinsically (i.e., because the cultivator can now work faster), but also because it’s secret (because competitors will still be producing cannabis more slowly without the new process). Trade secrets are not limited to technical inventions—they can also include run-of-the-mill confidential information such as customer lists, preferred vendor pricing lists, and so on. The key is secrecy.
Trade secret protection can often be more valuable than patent protection, as trade secrets are kept secret for so long as their owners choose to keep them secret (or until they get released to the public through other means). Patented inventions, on the other hand, are immediately disclosed to the government and anyone with a computer. To boot, a patent owner loses protections after a fixed period of time.
In short, trade secret protection is a great system—if you can keep your secrets secret. But as you can imagine, that can be difficult and expensive to do—and in some cases third parties take your secrets. Thus, litigation is sometimes necessary.
There are a number of ways in which trade secret cases play out, but there are essentially two common fact patterns in the cannabis industry and elsewhere. First, an employee or group of employees leave one company for a competitor and are alleged to take its trade secrets. Second, a company who comes out with a similar product/device/set of information, and is alleged to have stolen the idea from its competitor.
In the legal world, the theft of a trade secret by any source is referred to as “misappropriation”, and the party from whom the secret was taken can assert civil claims for misappropriation (we won’t address any criminal issues in this post). Until relatively recently, parties were forced to litigate disputes pursuant to various state laws, which are mostly relatively similar. In 2016, the federal Defend Trade Secrets Act (“DTSA”) was passed, which opened up the doors to the federal court system for many plaintiffs who otherwise would have been stuck in state court.
The remedies available under the various trade secret laws vary, but generally include, among other things, damages, injunctions (orders by a court to do or stop doing something), and in some cases, a requirement that the losing party pay the attorneys’ fees of the winning party. The DTSA also allows, in certain circumstances, a plaintiff to obtain an order to seize property that would assist with continued misappropriation of trade secrets.
Why is trade secret law important or applicable to the state-legal cannabis industry? The answer is that the industry is in its infancy, which necessarily means that it will experience great innovation and invention in the coming years—anyone with experience in the industry can attest to that. Unfortunately, and like in any other growth-phase industry, this also means that there may be an abundance of misconduct and theft. Even companies that take steps to prevent misappropriation could be the victims of it in the near future.
Navigating the trade secret landscape may be tough—especially for new cannabis businesses. Spending time and resources up-front to develop safeguards to protect from misappropriation and train employees is critical, even though it may be costly. But by that same token, litigating trade secret disputes can be even more difficult and costly. Consulting with trade secret counsel, both during the normal course of business and after any potential dispute arises, is always a good approach.