May 2020

When is an invention disclosure or patent application a trade secret?

Philip Alford, MJLST Staffer

Patents and trade secrets are often presented as a dichotomy of legal protections, distinguished by disclosure versus secrecy. Under the patent bargain, the government offers patent protections in exchange for the public disclosure of new and useful inventions. 35 U.S.C. §101. Various trade secret protections, on the other hand, are available when a party has suffered harm from the misappropriation of secret information. See, e.g., 18 U.S.C. §1863 and Minn. Stat. § 325C et seq. While the two areas of law are complementary, they do not perfectly align. Although trade secrets generally refer to information, this information can be embodied by a patented article, a method, or in one case, a pineapple. See Del Monte Fresh Produce Co. v. Dole Food Co., 136 F. Supp. 2d 1271 (S.D. Fla. 2001).

Trade secret protections are lost as soon as the material is disclosed to the public, including the publication of patent applications by patent offices occurring 18 months after first filing. This is the case even if the patent application never matures into a patent. Inventors should be aware that giving up secrecy in exchange for pursuing a patent is not a guaranteed exchange. To obtain a patent, inventors need to convince the Patent Office that their invention is (1) new, (2) a useful and non-obvious contribution to the art, and (3) described in sufficient detail so that others would be able to make and use the invention. 35 U.S.C. §§101, 102, 103, 112. For this reason, inventors should undertake at least a preliminary analysis to determine whether the requirements for a patent are reasonable satisfied before making any decision to give up potential trade secrets. This analysis would typically involve finding a patent attorney, who can together with the inventors to conduct a search, review for potentially relevant art, and best understand the advantages of the invention before drafting the patent application.

Trade secret protection cannot be assumed as a default. Not all secret inventions are eligible for trade secret protections—even inventions that would otherwise satisfy the requirements for a patent. A secret invention is only eligible for trade secret protection if (1) it is secret, i.e., not generally known or readily ascertainable;  (2) it confers an economic or competitive advantage; and (3) it is subject to reasonable efforts to maintain secrecy. See 18 U.S.C. §1863 and Minn. Stat. § 325C et seq. If inventors are considering whether to forgo filing a patent application, or abandon an unpublished application in favor of maintaining secrecy, the inventors must consider whether the resulting secrecy will, in fact, afford any trade secret protections at all. On one hand, a patentable but unpublished disclosure will typically satisfy the secrecy requirement if it also satisfies the novelty and non-obviousness elements of patentability. Similarly, the type of subject matter for which a patent is pursued is typically of the type that would confer an economic or competitive advantage if withheld from competitors. On the other hand, trade secret protections require reasonable efforts to maintain trade secrecy. No part of patentability imposes a similar requirement.

The reasonable effort requirement for trade secret protection is not as likely to be satisfied in the normal course of invention. What exactly is meant by “reasonable efforts” in a trade secret context? Reasonable efforts differ based on the nature of the information, the field of endeavor, and the risks to secrecy. Generally, to show reasonable efforts, parties should plan in advance to protect their secrets, for example, by using confidentiality agreements, internal employee policies, vendor policies, and electronic information policies. Such policies should be monitor compliance, remind employees that information is secret, and limit access to the secret information, e.g., via locks, passwords, and security. The extent of effort deemed reasonable will be based on the value of the information, the cost of precautions, and the likelihood that secrecy will be lost. Maintenance of absolute secrecy is not required, nor is it necessary to take steps that will be ineffective to protect the secret. See E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. v. Christopher, 431 F.2d 1012 (5th Cir. 1970).

Inventors may intend to forgo patent or trade secret protection in favor of the other, only to subsequently learn that they lack the protection of either. Inventors and patent practitioners should be mindful that coverage gaps can arise due to the differing requirements for patent and trade secret protections.


COVID-19: Substantiating the Impacts of Environmental Racism

Jessamine De Ocampo, MJLST Staffer

The Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic is highlighting the numerous socio-economic inequalities in America. Because of these inequalities minorities are dying at disproportionally high rates. In addition to various barriers to health care, minority communities are inequitably exposed to hazardous environmental conditions that may end up affecting their long-term health. Under-served communities, including communities of color and the poor, are disproportionately impacted by environmental problems. Under-served communities historically lack the political power to prevent new sources of pollution and eradicate existing ones. As a result, generations of inequity and unjust systems have placed certain communities at higher risk than others. For example, in Harris County, Texas, 40 percent of those who died from COVID-19 were African-American, though African-American’s accounted for only 20 percent of the county’s population. Similar COVID-19 fatality patterns can be seen in Georgia,  Detroit, Michigan, Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Chicago, Illinois. Environmental justice advocates have long argued that environmental racism is killing their communities, but COVID-19 brings new light into just how detrimental the severity of environmental racism can be.

Environmental justice advocates seek to shield low-income and minority communities from the worst impacts of air pollution and environmental degradation. A recent Harvard study analyzed thousands of US counties in order to find a link between air pollution and COVID-19 fatalities. The study reflects that coal plants, waste incinerators, refineries, landfills, mines, smelting plants, and other sites, often located in communities of color, have long emitted toxic pollutants into the water and particulate matter into the air, increasing air pollution which in turn leads to various pulmonary and cardiovascular diseases. These chronic health issues increase chances of contracting severe cases of COVID-19.

In Louisiana, between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, exists an industrial corridor stretching about 85 miles, containing more than 140 chemical factories and oil refineries. This area is commonly known as Cancer Alley. These chemical factories and oil refineries release large amounts of particulate matter, which has been listed as a known carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Cancer Alley is one of the most polluted places in America, and someone has died from cancer in almost every household in the area. In the community of Reserve, a predominantly African-American working class neighborhood nestled in the middle of Cancer Alley, the risk of cancer from air toxicity is 50 times the national average. Now, Cancer Alley has one of the highest COVID-19 death rates in the country.

Similarly, Native American Tribes have long held the burden of having their lands used for toxic dumping sites. Environmental injustice, among other facts, has led to varying risks of illness on Indian lands. Now, they are bracing for the worst impacts of COVID. Kevin Allis, chief executive of the National Congress of American Indians stated “When you look at the health disparities in Indian Country — high rates of diabetes, cancer, heart disease, asthma and then you combine that with the overcrowded housing situation where you have a lot of people in homes with an elder population who may be exposed or carriers — this could be like a wildfire on a reservation and get out of control in a heartbeat.” And then, there are the residents of Oakland, California where mainly low-income African American and Latino residents are exposed to a disproportionate amount of airborne toxins as compared to the rest of the surrounding Alameda County. East and West Oakland residents have higher rates of asthma, strokes and congestive heart failures and during the COVID pandemic, these communities are the hardest hit in Alameda County.

Robert Bullard, who some consider the “father of environmental justice” stated in a recent interview:

When you have poverty, lack of access to health care, [high rates of] uninsured, many who have no private automobiles and are dependent on the buses and public transportation, and neighborhoods in pollution sacrifice zones you’re going to get people who are vulnerable. The coronavirus is basically taking advantage of those vulnerabilities, and you’re seeing it play out in the deaths.

While the environmental movement has taken off in recent years with the growing certainty of climate change, environmental justice cases have almost slipped through the cracks. As organizations begin to plan for a new world shaped by lessons learned during the pandemic, the influence the environment has on health, and the disproportionate burden on minority communities, needs to bear a greater weight in our political discourse. As former democratic primary candidate and current Vermont Senator, Bernie Sanders stated, “access to a clean and healthy environment is a fundamental right of citizenship. To deny such rights constitutes an environmental injustice that should never be tolerated.” The death rates and disproportionate effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on minority groups only compounds the evidence that unhealthy environments are detrimental to society/humanity. In addition to monitoring the biological environmental consequences of our societies, we also need to be considering the social consequences.


A Rising Tool in International Climate Litigation: The Right to Life

Jessamine De Ocampo, MJLST Staffer

There has been a growing national and international trend placing environmental rights and environmental justice under the umbrella of human rights. The empirical data around climate change is vastly shaping the international human rights arena, allowing environmental rights to be considered and litigated amongst human rights. As of 2019, air pollution is estimated to have resulted in and continues to result in 7 million yearly premature deaths worldwide; of which 600,000 are children under the age of 5. Entire communities, particularly island nations, are being forced to relocate due to rising sea levels while climate variability and changing weather is resulting in severe food crises threatening food security.

Climate and environmental issues have been actively permeating the international human rights field. The UN Human Right Council entered a mandate for an investigation into the correlation between human rights and environmental rights, the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights commissioned their first special rapporteur on Economic, Social, Cultural and Environmental Rights, and the UN Human Rights Committee in a General Comment, recognized the relevance of climate issues in the context of the right to life. The Right to Life is a universally recognized fundamental human right. While it can be found in a multitude of international and regional doctrines, it is primarily referenced in relation to Article 3 of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The right to life doctrine essentially states that every person has a right, protected by law, to live.

In the international courts, climate litigation cases have been decided under the Right to Life doctrine with growing success. A Pakistani farmer sued his country for failing to implement environmental legislation and won; a family of rural workers sued their home country of Paraguay for failing to protect them from severe environmental contamination in which the court held “the link between environmental protection and human rights is ‘undeniable.’ ” Finally, in December 2019, the Dutch Supreme Court held that the Dutch government must reduce emissions immediately in line with its human rights obligations.

As climate change and environmental justice concerns continue to pose an ever-growing multi-layered effect on our societies, these new tools may prove to be crucial in implementing liability. As the link tying climate change and human rights becomes stronger, individuals have more than before to establish a claim. The right to life doctrine can, and should, be used to enforce government liability for failing to regulate the harmful effects of climate change.


Coronavirus Accelerates the Switch to Remote Online Notarization

Stephen Wood, MJLST Staffer

The legal profession has been relatively quick to adapt to challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite widespread stay-at-home orders, technology enables lawyers and the courts to continue to conduct much of their business that has historically been required to be done in person. While telephonic U.S. Supreme Court oral arguments are unlikely to persist once things normalize, other changes may be here to stay. One example is the move to Remote Online Notarization. Official transactions such as the conveyance of real estate, granting of powers of attorney, and establishment of a prenuptial agreements must be certified by a notary for the purpose of preventing fraud and forgery. Before the pandemic, a majority of states still required this process to be conducted in person.

The first state to authorize RON was Virginia in 2011, and since then, twenty-one states had followed their lead. Nearly all the of the remaining states had laws introduced to authorize RON, but for one reason or another, they had not yet been passed. In the last few months, this has quickly changed. At least 44 states now authorize the process to be conducted remotely. Wisconsin is one state that has done so through state law rather than executive order. The Act, 2019 Wisconsin Act 125, was passed on March 3, 2020 and takes effect May 1, 2020. Until then, an emergency rule authorizes the same. However, there are limitations as to which documents apply. Meanwhile, the vast majority of states have authorized RON through executive orders or proclamations by their governors. Even before the pandemic, it was predicted that RON would become the norm, but COVID-19 is certainly speeding up the process.


COVID-19, Remote Technology, and Due Process in Administrative Hearings

Brent Murcia, MJLST Staffer

Wherever you look, it seems like COVID-19 is dominating all the headlines these days (even this blog!)—and with good reason. The pandemic is a public health crisis on a massive scale, forcing all of us to change our lives to “socially distance” and help “flatten the curve.”

As of April 7, 95% of Americans were under some sort of “stay at home” order. With life-as-usual on hold, many people are turning to technology to keep things running. For example, in Boston, some celebrated St. Patrick’s Day with virtual concerts. Some people  celebrated Earth Day by tuning into National Park webcams. And of course, everyone from Minnesota Law students to the UK Cabinet is holding meetings (and happy hours!) on Zoom.

The legal system, of course, is not immune from the effects of this pandemic. Staff at government agencies, private law firms, and nonprofits are working from home. Some state legislatures are allowing remote voting for the first time. Many prisons have suspended in-person visits, including legal visits. Courts across the country are closed, delayed, or operating remotely. In section 150002 of the recent COVID-19 relief bill (the “CARES Act”), Congress authorized emergency video and telephone hearings for a variety of court proceedings, including detention hearings and felony pleas and sentencing. Even the United States Supreme Court will be moving to argument over the phone in May.  

As with many things in society these days, a number of these changes would have been unthinkable two months ago. Who could have imagined that certain courts, many of which require paper filings and ban the use of electronic devices in courtrooms, would soon holdarguments via video conference? The Supreme Court itself has famously never allowed live broadcasts of arguments (a subject of considerable debate). But with arguments moving to the phone, the Court will now allow the public to listen in real time.

As one would expect, the rollout of these sudden changes has not been entirely smooth. In many courts, things have gone well, with only “momentary audio hiccups and minor glitches.” But in March, a D.C. Circuit judge was dropped from an argument and missed several minutes. Last week, a Florida judge complained of lawyers making court appearances shirtless or in pajamas. One Australian barrister described remote court hearings as follows: “The judge couldn’t see anyone; lines dropped out regularly; witnesses didn’t know where to go; … subpoenaed material could not be accessed by anyone; feedback made it impossible to proceed.”

Some of these problems are silly—in the grand scheme of things, we have bigger worries than appropriate Zoom dress codes. But others have the potential to fundamentally impact proceedings—possibly affecting parties’ due process rights. This blog post briefly explores some of the issues that COVID-19 has brought to the forefront, with a particular focus on administrative processes. (For a comprehensive listing of the ways in which different federal administrative agencies are holding their hearings, see this great blog post from the Yale Journal on Regulation).

 Remote Hearings—An Overview

Remote proceedings are not exactly new. Even before the pandemic took hold, CourtCall—a company that facilitates remote appearances—had hosted six million such appearances since 1996. Many courts have long allowed certain remote appearances (sometimes requiring the consent of the parties, sometimes not). According to the Administrative Conference of the United States (ACUS), some agencies already conducted thousands of video hearings a year even before the pandemic. Still, until recently, such appearances were the exception, not the norm. And the use of remote technologies has generated controversy, even before its sudden widespread adoption.

Problems with Remote Hearings

Some people have expressed skepticism about the use of remote hearings, emerging in part from evidentiary concerns. As the BBC recently reported, video calls can make it “harder to process non-verbal cues like facial expressions, the tone and pitch of the voice, and body language.” That BBC story also referred to a 2014 study which found that even a 1.2 second transmission delay on a videoconferencing system “made people perceive the responder as less friendly or focused.” These effects can matter, considering the importance of perception and non-verbal cues in courtrooms. Additionally, one 1996 study in the University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform (before the advent of video technology) found that “parties to telephone hearings are less likely to exercise their rights to submit evidence through witnesses and documents than are parties to in-person hearings.”

Remote hearings can be particularly problematic in immigration hearings, which often involve language interpretation and the recounting of traumatic events. In early March—even before COVID-19 closures began—immigration courts in Texas began a pilot program to hold more hearings for unaccompanied children over videoconference, attempting to reduce a backlog of cases. One immigration attorney, forced by the virus to work with clients remotely, described the difficulty of doing so: “[w]e’re asking kids to open up and talk about the most personal and traumatic experiences of their lives and not even be making direct eye contact with them.” Remote hearings can affect the outcome of cases; a 2017 Government Accountability Office (GAO) study found that video hearings caused difficulties with language interpretation and affected immigration judges’ assessments of respondents’ credibility. A study in the Northwestern University Law Review found that respondents in video hearings were more likely to be deported. The American Immigration Lawyers Association opposes the use of video hearings for immigration for these reasons.

Problems with remote hearings also arise in settings that require public participation—like rulemakings and permit applications. In Minnesota, for instance, the state Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) recently delayed publication of a proposed Clean Cars rule, recognizing the importance of in-person comment and“ensuring that the public has opportunity to participate in the rule-making process.” At the same time, the MPCA moved forward with public meetings about Clean Water Act permits for the controversial Line 3 pipeline project, holding the meetings over the phone. More than 1,600 people called into the meetings, but only 400 were able to speak due to high volume. Some local organizers collected video comments, attempting to put a face to the public input, and called for the agency to hold in-person meetings once the pandemic has passed.

Finally, depending on the circumstances, remote hearings can also run afoul of specific public process requirements and open meeting laws. Lawyers in New Jersey, for instance, have highlighted a number of legal concerns arising from virtual land use board hearings. Laws about when and how meetings may be held electronically vary state to state; and amidst the pandemic, governors and legislatures have taken varying steps to clarify that authority. In Minnesota, the state legislature amended the open meeting law to account for the pandemic, expanding the circumstances under which meetings may be held remotely.

Benefits of Remote Hearings

Despite all of these problems, some lawyers have actually long advocated for an increase in virtual hearings. One common argument is that online hearings can help improve access to justice, addressing backlogs of millions of cases in some courts and agencies. Some argue that our current legal process is built more around “serving a place than serving justice.” One paper surveyed a number of other reasons why remote hearings may help in some contexts. Remote hearings can help in international cases or cases where the parties and witnesses live far apart; they can help with safety and security for parties, witnesses, and judges; they can help alleviate scheduling issues; and they can help in cases where traveling to court presents a significant burden for an individual, perhaps for economic reasons or due to a disability. (For a thorough summary of some of the ways in which technology—not just remote hearings—can help improve access to justice, see this 2012 article in the Harvard Journal of Law & Technology). 

Further, while some arguments against remote hearings focus on the importance of non-verbal cues in proceedings, others have disputed that importance. Some research has pointed out that there can be as much pseudoscience as science in attempts to interpret witness behavior. Some have questioned whether witness demeanor is even useful at all for assessing credibility. And while non-verbal cues can and do shape judge and jury reactions, this may not always be a good thing—reactions to certain behaviors can be shaped by implicit bias, furthering racial and other disparities. More research is likely needed on whether these disparities are exacerbated or lessened by different types of virtual hearings.

Finally, remote court hearings can create significant cost savings. For example, according to ACUS, the Social Security Administration’s Office of Disability Adjudication and Review saved $59 million in 2010 from using video hearings. These savings matter to people who have to navigate the legal system. A 2014 NPR investigation found, for example, that “the costs of the criminal justice system in the United States are paid increasingly by the defendants and offenders.” Many defendants are required to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars in court costs, even for constitutionally required services. Reducing court costs could help lower fees, reducing the burden on low-income parties. Additionally, law firms are saving money from virtual hearings too, potentially reducing the cost of legal services and improving access to representation down the road.

The potential for improved access and reduced costs from virtual hearings is promising, but comes with an important caution. As British lawyer Richard Atkinson wrote for The Guardian in 2012: “A more efficient justice system is possible, but the government needs to recognise that speed does not always equate to efficiency and efficiency should never be promoted over justice.”

Looking Forward

 As the effects of social distancing wear on, many of us look forward to the day when we can finally go “back to normal.” Without question, it will be a happy day when we can be with our loved ones, our friends, and our coworkers again. Lawyers will also be happy to return to the office, meet with clients in person, and advocate in real courtrooms.

At the same time, questions about remote hearings will not go away. Looking backward, some litigators will likely contest whether certain remote hearings conducted during COVID-19 were permissible. Looking forward, others will use our social distancing experience to argue that we should expand or reduce the use of remote hearings in the future.

There are no universal answers to these questions—the appropriateness of remote hearings depends on the applicable laws and the context of the case. In some cases, remote hearings can adversely affect parties’ rights; in others, they can actually improve access to justice. As one English judge wrote recently, “[i]t remains the obligation of all involved and at all stages of the hearing, to continue to evaluate whether fairness to all the parties is being achieved. Fairness cannot be sacrificed to convenience.” Our task, in these unprecedented times, is to move forward as best and as fairly we can—and to learn from these new experiences to better inform our approach to technology in the courtroom in the future.