Preventing Trade Secret Theft (in 20 Years)

Trade secret theft becomes a bigger concern for major companies with every passing day. Particularly when companies are doing business overseas—where intellectual property protections may not be as well-enforced—keeping trade secrets secret has become, to put it lightly, a challenge.

The recent GM trade secrets case illustrates the issue perfectly. In that case, which ended on Dec. 1 with the conviction of a former GM engineer and her husband, GM’s hybrid technology trade secrets were found on at least seven computers owned by the couple. According to press reports, the couple had planned to take the trade secrets and go into business in China.

To be sure, companies must do a better job of policing their trade secrets and creating corporate cultures infused with honesty and integrity.  They simply need to do a better job of educating their own employees about the sensitive nature of the trade secrets, and the importance of keeping those secrets under wraps. However, wouldn’t it also be smart to start incorporating IP awareness into the curriculum at those universities where the creators of tomorrow’s technology breakthroughs are being nurtured and trained?

John Villasenor, a contributor to and a professor at UCLA, recently surveyed his graduate engineering students on their IP awareness. More than two-thirds of them said they didn’t know enough to answer the question “what is a trade secret?” They were not quite as ill-informed on the issues of patents, trademarks and copyrights, but the results were still not encouraging.

It’s not the students’ fault, Villasenor says. They’re in school, so if the school isn’t teaching it to them, then they can’t necessarily be blamed for not knowing it.

If those students—our future engineers and inventors—don’t know what a trade secret is today, and nobody sits down to spell it out for them at some point in the future, we can’t blame them if they don’t grasp their importance. As Villasenor writes:

 An engineer who doesn’t understand trade secrets and the obligations that accompany them is far more likely to walk out the door with proprietary computer code on a USB stick when he or she moves to a new job. Ignorance, of course, is not an excuse for trade secret theft. However, it contributes to a theft rate that is drastically underreported and almost certainly at epidemic levels. When trade secrets walk out the door, everyone loses – the company that invested in their development, the engineer who took them and who stands exposed to substantial civil and/or criminal liability, and third party recipients who could become embroiled in misappropriation allegations.

Today’s engineering and science students are tomorrow’s inventors and innovators. We need to be schooling them, today, on the importance of trade secrets and intellectual property rights.

It may not be on the test, but their—and our—future may be riding on it.


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