The Ninth Circuit recently held in United States v. Liew that it was not plain error for the district court not to instruct the jury that disclosure “‘to even a single recipient who is not legally bound to maintain [a trade secret’s] secrecy’ destroys trade secret protection.” As a result, the Ninth Circuit upheld criminal convictions under the (pre-Defend Trade Secrets Act) Economic Espionage Act (“EEA”) for trade secret misappropriation despite a third-party competitor (who was not bound by any confidentiality obligations) acquiring the trade secret.
The trade secret at issue in United States v. Liew concerned methods of producing titanium dioxide (TiO2), a white pigment found in anything from paint to Oreo creme, which makes its manufacture a (surprisingly) competitive industry. DuPont has been a leader in TiO2 production since the 1940s, when it became more efficient to produce TiO2 through a chloride-based process. DuPont opened chloride plants around the US, including one in Antioch, California and one in Ashtabula, Ohio. The Ashtabula plant was built for Sherwin-Williams, subject to a fifteen-year confidentiality agreement effective through the plant’s sale in the 1970s. The plant was sold multiple times thereafter and was ultimately acquired by a competitor of DuPont who was not bound by any nondisclosure or confidentiality obligations to the company.