Trade secrets are arguably the most common form of intellectual property transmitted across borders in today’s global market. Any business that seeks to capitalize on foreign market opportunities—either by working with a foreign partner or establishing their own foreign operations—is likely to transmit confidential information abroad. However, such cross-border transmissions directly impact the legal protections afforded to such information as the extent of trade secret protection and enforceability of trade secret rights varies between countries. Examining some of the main differences in trade secret protection and enforceability between countries is important as businesses increasingly must choose how to contractually structure protections for their confidential information abroad. Further, understanding the extent of trade secret protections afforded to confidential information in different markets can help businesses establish effective country-specific trade secret protection strategies that address the strengths and weaknesses of a particular country’s legal protections for trade secrets.Particular factors that should be considered include:
- Qualifying confidential information
- Injunctive enforceability of trade secret rights
- Foreign judicial system effectiveness
Qualifying Confidential Information. A preliminary factor for businesses to consider is the extent to which their confidential information is protected under a country’s trade secret laws. Most countries have adopted a minimum level of legal protections for trade secrets, yet such protections often vary. World Trade Organization (WTO) member states are required to adopt minimum legal protections for trade secrets. Under Article 3 and Article 39(2) of The Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), WTO member states must provide persons or entities of their countries and other WTO member states legal rights to prevent the disclosure of lawfully-held information that:
- Is secret in the sense that it is not, as a body or in the precise configuration and assembly of its components, generally known among or readily accessible to persons within the circles that normally deal with the kind of information in question;
- Has commercial value because it is secret; and
- Has been subject to reasonable steps under the circumstances, by the person lawfully in control of the information, to keep it secret.
As this widely accepted minimum legal requirement is ambiguous, WTO member states have the ability to establish their own variation, often differing the amount and type of confidential information qualifying for trade secret protection. For example, the U.S. and China provide legal protection for confidential information that has actual (current) or potential commercial value, where TRIPS is silent about the time to which such value must be established. This means that a business that has developed or acquired confidential information that will be commercially valuable at a future date will qualify for legal protection for such information in these countries, subject to protection and secretive requirements.
In contrast, several countries are silent on this commercial value issue and maintain other factors for determining trade secret protection. For example, in India, trade secrets have been judicially defined as “formulae, technical know-how or a peculiar mode or method of business adopted by an employer which is unknown to others.” Not only is this definition silent on when commercial value must be established, it is also silent on what constitutes sufficiently reasonable protection procedures for such information to qualify for trade secret protection.
As these examples illustrate, countries often maintain different qualifying standards for trade secret protection despite satisfying their TRIPS obligations. Based on these differences, businesses must carefully determine what portions of their confidential information qualifies for trade secret protection in a particular country.
Injunctive Enforceability of Trade Secret Rights. Trade secret owners must also consider their ability to protect their trade secrets through injunctive relief in a particular country. Most countries will grant a permanent injunction against a person or entity after they are found by a Court to have misappropriated a trade secret. However, this often requires initiating and succeeding in a legal action, which is not certain to succeed and may take a substantial amount time before being granted. This could harm the commercial value of the confidential information, and in many cases, the potential success of the trade secret owner’s foreign business operations or strategies. As a result, seeking a preliminary injunction, namely an injunction sought at the onset of a trade secret misappropriation proceeding, is essential to effective trade secret protection.
A business’ ability to seek a preliminary injunction to protect their trade secret varies from country-to-country. In the U.S., a trade secret owner may seek a preliminary injunction against a misappropriating party or parties providing them assistance through an initial motion in a misappropriation proceeding. Although U.S. jurisdictions generally maintain high evidentiary burdens for trade secret owners to obtain preliminary injunctions, U.S. courts allow evidentiary exchanges between the parties (known as discovery) and copies of original evidence to be admissible under specific requirements. U.S. courts may also permit discovery proceedings to be expedited based on the sensitivity of the confidential information at issue.
In contrast, other countries make obtaining a preliminary injunction more difficult. For example, preliminary injunctions are rarely granted in Chinese trade secret cases due to the absence of a discovery process and restrictive evidentiary burdens. Chinese trade secret proceedings do not have discovery processes and Chinese Courts will generally only accept original written forms of evidence. This means that trade secret owners in China are forced to gather their own evidence, and can only admit original written evidence, which makes satisfying the evidentiary burden to obtain an preliminary injunction substantially more difficult.
As illustrated with China’s trade secret injunction procedures, trade secret owners need to determine what challenges they will face in enforcing their trade secret protections under a country’s judicial procedures, regardless of the extent of a country’s trade secret protections.
Foreign Judicial System Effectiveness. Even if a country’s injunctive judicial procedures are surmountable, a country must also have an effective judicial system to even allow injunctive enforcement to be brought forward. This requires determining whether a country has an effective judicial system to enforce trade secret protections. There are several resources for businesses to determine the effectiveness of a foreign country’s judicial system, including their national IP offices and trade agencies. In the U.S., the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) publishes annual reports (known as Special 301 Reports) that identify IP enforcement concerns for U.S. IP owners by country, including ineffective judicial systems. For example, in the 2013 USTR Special 301 Report, the USTR identified Argentina, Bulgaria, Greece, Guatemala, India, Indonesia, Paraguay, Peru and Turkey as having judicial system inefficiencies for enforcing IP rights.
Parting Notes. Although the above-mentioned factors are important when evaluating cross-border trade secret protections, examining such factors only comprise a portion of an effective foreign trade secret protection strategy. Establishing the best protections for trade secrets abroad should also include other protection measures including the development of internal business protocols to prevent unauthorized information disclosures, among other procedures. Working with qualified counsel can effectively assist with evaluating both the above-mentioned factors and internal business protocols.
 Uniform Trade Secrets Act, § 1.4; 18 U.S.C. § 1839(3)(b).
 J. Benjamin Bai and Guoping Da, Strategies for Trade Secrets Protection in China, 9 Nw. J. Tech. & Intell. Prop. 351, 359 (2011) available at http://scholarlycommons.law.northwestern.edu/njtip/vol9/iss7/1 (citing Zui Gao Ren Min Fa Yuan Guan Yu Shen Li Bu Zheng Dang Jing Zheng Min Shi An Jian Ying Yong Fa Lv Ruo Gan Wen Ti De Jie Shi, Interpretation of Supreme People’s Court on Some Issues Concerning the Application of Law in the Trial of Civil Cases Involving Unfair Competition, art. 10, Fashi 2/2007 (Sup. People’s Ct. 2007) (China)).
 Pedro A. Padilla Torres, Overview of International Trade Secret Protection, National Law Center for Inter-American Free Trade, (2001) available at http://db.natlaw.com/interam/mx/ip/sp/spmxip14.htm.
 Zafar Mahfooz Nomani and Faizanur Rahman, Intellection of Trade Secret and Innovation Laws in India, J Intell. Prop Rights, 341, 346, (Jul. 2011) (citing American Express Bank Ltd. v Priya Puri (2006) III LLJ 540 (Del) (India)).
 Ronald S. Wynn, Trade Secret Litigation: TROs, Preliminary Injunctions, and Some Things to Think About First, HansonBridgett, 2-3, Mar. 2012 available at http://www.hansonbridgett.com/Our-Attorneys/~/media/Files/Publications/IP_alert_trade_secret_litigation_2012.pdf.
 Id. at 2 (burden generally includes “(1) probable success on the merits, (2) irreparable harm without the requested injunction, and (3) a balance of hardships between the trade secret claimant and the alleged misappropriator that favors the injunction”).
 Id. at 3.
 J. Benjamin Bai and Guoping Da, supra note 2, at 362-63.