Under California law, a plaintiff must bring a claim for trade secret misappropriation within three years of discovering the misappropriation or, by the exercise of reasonable diligence, should have discovered the alleged misappropriation. Often times, discovery of alleged trade secret misappropriation is rather straightforward, i.e., a company discovers that its former employee has downloaded information from a computer and has started soliciting customers to do business with a competitor. However, there are times when discovery is less straightforward, especially in product development where it can take years for a product to hit the market. One potential source of information that may give rise to the discovery of trade secret misappropriation that employers must be aware of are patent filings. The U.S. District Court in the Northern District of California recently used evidence of a patent filing to grant summary judgment in favor of a defendant accused of trade secret misappropriation in the case: Wang v. Palo Alto Networks, Inc. (Case No. 12-05579).
Mr. Wang was a design engineer specializing in the field of network security. He spent approximately a decade trying to commercialize his firewall technology that included “fast signature scan” technology. In 2004, he filed a patent application on his technology. His patent eventually issued in November 2008.
For years prior to the issuance of his patent, he tried to interest venture capitalists in his product. In 2005, Mr. Wang met defendant Fengmin Gong at a seminar. Mr. Gong was a chief scientist at McAfee, Inc. at the time. Mr. Wang gave Mr. Gong a brief overview of the technology he was developing and later had Mr. Gong sign a nondisclosure agreement. Over the next year, Mr. Wang discussed his alleged trade secrets with Mr. Gong and even gave him a copy of his patent application that contained trade secret information. Mr. Gong was supposedly the only person to whom Mr. Wang disclosed his trade secret information.
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