Monday, April 25, 2011

Publicly Available Software Code Can Be a Trade Secret if Compilation is Not Generally Known

A recent Fourth Circuit opinion analyzed when a software compilation can qualify for protection as a trade secret. The plaintiff company claimed that although its software used publicly-available mathematical formulas, the combination and implementation of these formulas contained in the source code for the software constitutes a trade secret. The Fourth Circuit agreed, holding that a trade secret may be composed of publicly-available information if the method by which that information is compiled is not generally known. Processes that are publicly known can become trade secrets when combined into a source code and the manner and sequence of the processes is unique and unknown to the public. The case is Decision Insights, Inc. v. Sentia Group, Inc., 2011 U.S. App. LEXIS 5151 (4th Cir. Va. March 15, 2011), and can be foundThe case can be found here.

The case arose when Decision Insights, Inc. (“Decision Insights”) filed a complaint against Sentia Group, Inc. (“Sentia”) and individual former employees alleging that Sentia’s development of a competing software application was based on materials obtained from the Sentia’s misappropriation of Decision Insight’s trade secrets. The question considered by the district court was whether Decision Insight’s software application, as a total compilation, could qualify as a trade secret under Virginia law.

Sentia had hired a former consultant for Decision Insights who worked to develop software for Sentia that would compete with Decision Insights’ software. According to Decision Insights, the software developed by Sentia is almost identical to its own. Decision Insights asserted that all the parameters, variables, and sequencing associated with the programs must have been the same as Decision Insights’ software to obtain such identical software.

The criteria for establishing the existence of a trade secret under Va. Code § 59.1-336 includes whether or not the compilation has independent economic value, is generally known or readily ascertainable by proper means, and is subject to reasonable efforts to maintain secrecy.

On appeal, the court considered whether Decision Insights adduced enough evidence at trial for a jury to reach the conclusion that Decision Insights’ software, as a compilation, is not generally known or ascertainable by proper means. At trial, Decision Insights had introduced two experts who testified that part of the source code was unknown to the public and the sequence of the processes was unique and not publicly available. One expert identified 13 proprietary processes in the source code, and stated that “[t]he collection of these processes as a whole and the sequence of these processes also serve as a proprietary aspect of [Decision Insights’ software].” Opinion at 14.

The court held that due to the evidence offered by the two experts, the trial court erred in concluding that Decision Insights had not satisfied its evidentiary burden to show that its software compilation was not generally known or readily ascertainable by proper means. The court noted that a trade secret may be composed of publicly-available information if the method by which that information is compiled is not generally known. The court cited Servo Corp. of America. v. General Electric Co., which held that a trade secret “might consist of several discrete elements, any one of which could have been discovered by study of material available to the public.” 393 F.2d 551, 554 (4th Cir. 1968). The court also found that numerous variables that were part of the Decision Insights software code were not in public literature or known outside the company.

The court remanded and directed the district court to consider other criteria specified by the Virginia Trade Secret Misappropriation Act, including whether Decision Insights’ software code has independent economic value and whether Decision Insights engaged in reasonable efforts to maintain the secrecy of the software code. See Va. Code. Section 59.1-336.

In the past, parties have claimed that a company’s products or process are not trade secrets unless kept strictly and wholly confidential. This case is important because it allows some components of trade secret information to be publicly known in certain circumstances while maintaining their trade secret status so long as other important information, such as the way those public pieces of software code are put together, remains confidential. The question of whether information was adequately kept confidential frequently arises in unfair business practices cases and this opinion helps clarify the issue.