Secrets – The recently passed Defend Trade Secrets Act (DTSA) has a long reach, a reach so long that the new law should be as much of a concern to European, Chinese, and Japanese companies as it is to US companies. The new law’s reach has also been extended by tethering it with the US federal racketeering law.

Think the DTSA doesn’t apply to your British company? Think again.

One of the first DTSA litigations, for example, was brought against a researcher at Monsanto who was accused of stealing trade secrets to benefit his new employer in China.  Monsanto Co. v. Chen, Case No. 4:16-cv-876 (E.D. Mo.).

German, British, Canadian, and Chinese companies have thus far appeared in US courts as either defendants or plaintiffs in DTSA cases. Other non-US companies have also likely been involved but tracking trade secret cases in the US federal court database is not straightforward.

European trade secretHow Does a Non-US Company Get Snared by the DTSA?

Filing a DTSA complaint in a US federal court requires both “subject matter jurisdiction” and “personal jurisdiction.”

For subject matter jurisdiction, the civil provisions of the DTSA apply to the misappropriation of trade secrets if the “interstate commerce or foreign commerce” requirement of the law is satisfied.

The provision is spelled out in 18 U.S. Code § 1832 of the former Economic Espionage Act that served as the basis for the DTSA:

(a)  Whoever, with intent to convert a trade secret, that is related to a product or service used in or intended for use in interstate or foreign commerce, to the economic benefit of anyone other than the owner thereof, and intending or knowing that the offense will, injure any owner of that trade secret, knowingly—
(1) steals, or without authorization appropriates, takes, carries away, or conceals, or by fraud, artifice, or deception obtains such information;
(2) without authorization copies, duplicates, sketches, draws, photographs, downloads, uploads, alters, destroys, photocopies, replicates, transmits, delivers, sends, mails, communicates, or conveys such information;
(3) receives, buys, or possesses such information, knowing the same to have been stolen or appropriated, obtained, or converted without authorization;
(4) attempts to commit any offense described in paragraphs (1) through (3); or
(5) conspires with one or more other persons to commit any offense described in paragraphs (1) through (3), and one or more of such persons do any act to effect the object of the conspiracy,
shall, except as provided in subsection (b), be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 10 years, or both.
(b) Any organization that commits any offense described in subsection (a) shall be fined not more than the greater of $5,000,000 or 3 times the value of the stolen trade secret to the organization, including expenses for research and design and other costs of reproducing the trade secret that the organization has thereby avoided.

The DTSA differs from its predecessor Economic Espionage Act in that the DTSA, among other things, provides for a civil cause of action for parties harmed by a trade secret theft.

Personal jurisdiction under the DTSA, for the most part, resembles personal jurisdiction under the bulk of US federal law. So, for example, personal jurisdiction against a non-US company might be established in these situations:

  • The company sell products or services in the US and runs into a trade secret dispute there;
  • The company has a business relationship with a US company (e.g., supplier, distributor, partner, subcontractor, customer, etc.), and the trade secret dispute involves the US company;
  • The actual theft of the trade secret takes place in the US;
  • An employee of the company leaves and goes to work for a US business, and takes the trade secret with them, or
  • An employee of a US company leaves and goes to work for the non-US company, and takes the trade secret with them.

Personal jurisdiction is often a litigated factual and legal matter (as well as often requiring a constitutional analysis under cases such as the US Supreme Court’s decision in International Shoe Co. v. Washington (1945) and its progeny). So, cut and dried answers to personal jurisdiction can become complicated and require individual analysis by legal counsel.

The DTSA also retains the extraterritorial jurisdiction of its predecessor Economic Espionage Act where:

  • The offender is a U.S. citizen or permanent resident; or
  • The offender is an organization organized under the laws of the United States or any State or political subdivision thereof; or
  • An act in furtherance of the offense was committed in the United States

European DTSACivil Jurisdiction under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO)

The DTSA also amended the RICO Act by adding theft of trade secrets under DTSA sections 1831 and 1832 as a racketeering activity, also known as a “predicate act.” RICO provides civil plaintiffs with a separate cause of action related to trade secret misappropriation with different elements and damages. In some cases, a civil RICO claim could possibly bring higher damages than a trade misappropriation claim.

Among other things, this change may allow non-US defendants to be hauled into US courts as co-conspirators in a RICO case as an alleged “criminal enterprise” based on a pattern of racketeering activity, e.g., a series of actions involving the theft of trade secrets.

So, for example, if a multinational company has the habit of nicking trade secrets from start-up companies whose products they find attractive, then the multinational might possibly find itself accused of a being a criminal enterprise and facing extremely severe penalties in US federal court.

Civil RICO litigation typically depends upon whether the defendant’s predicate acts constitute a pattern. A “pattern” means that at least two predicate acts were committed, that the predicate acts were related to one another, and that the predicate acts amount to or pose a threat of continued criminal activity. The US Supreme Court in RJR Nabisco, Inc. v. The European Community affirmed that the predicate acts may be committed outside the United States, although the plaintiff must still prove a domestic US injury in order to prevail on the RICO claim.

While there is little case law yet, tying the DTSA to RICO may facilitate obtaining jurisdiction over non-US defendants who are not actually present in the US. Of course, non-US defendants with contacts in the US are likely already subject to personal jurisdiction in the US, as discussed above.

Hazel Helps Companies Identify Rank & Protect Their Trade Secrets

The Hazel Trade Secret Asset Management System helps companies manage their trade secrets and trade secret processes. Hazel can keep track of corporate trade secrets and help you determine an appropriate level of protection for each trade secret recorded. Hazel can record who in an organization is responsible for a given trade secret, who is responsible for protecting the trade secret, and who has access to the trade secret, among other things. Hazel can also help your company keep track of trade secrets that it has obtained from third parties by agreement so that you can fulfill your obligations to that party. Hazel can also help with various corporate functions such as a tax and human resources. Contact the Hazel Team today to learn more.

For Secrets, I’m Tom Ewing.


Sea Monster from Jules Verne by Alphonse-Marie-Adolphe de NeuvilleHetzel edition of 20000 Lieues Sous les Mers, p. 400. [1], Public Domain, Link

US Customs and Border Protection Offices, Public Domain, Link

Al Capone by Pennsylvania Department of Corrections / FBI –, Public Domain, Link

Thomas Ewing is a commercial lawyer, registered patent attorney, and intellectual property counselor with more than 25 years of experience in the IP field.  In his consulting practice, Tom routinely advises international organizations, government agencies, universities, law firms, multinational corporations and financial institutions. Tom has been recognized as one of the world’s 250 best IP strategists by IAM Magazine in every edition of its IAM 250 since the list’s inception in 2009.