Trade Secret Theft and Your Job: Ruling in Recent Case Underscores Need for Caution

Recent news about the spying and improprieties going on at Hewlett-Packard obscured an interesting bit of news and a reminder that spying may also take place on much smaller stages, and even in the rarified world of laboratory instrumentation. Instrumenta just published a report on a case involving California-based Wyatt Technology Corp.,  Viscotek Corp. (Houston) and dynamic light scattering (DLS) technology. Wyatt sued Viscotek last year for trade secret theft, but according to the report, U.S. District Court Judge Dickran Tevrizian in Los Angeles dismissed Wyatt's complaint but also ruled that Wyatt  had "intentionally accessed a Viscotek employee's private emails without authorization, and obtained protected information" relating to DLS technology. Wyatt must now pay punitive damages of $100K and another $200K+ in legal costs., both to Viscotek and to its U.K. based employee Ken Cunningham.  There's more to this story, but I'd like to focus on Mr. Cunningham, because what happened to him can happen to anyone when they change jobs, and are caught in the middle of complex cross-company IP ownership and licensing issues. Wyatt had bought some DLS technology assets from Proterion. Viscotek had entered the DLS business by licensing single-mode fiber DLS technology, which had previously been licensed to Proterion by a third party, Instrumenta reported.  (Wyatt didn't buy this portion of the Proterion DLS package, since it uses multimode fiber in its instrumentation). Proterion employee Cunningham provided some freelance services to existing Proterion customers after Wyatt acquired the DLS technology.  But when he joined Viscotek, his computer became Wyatt's property and the company apparently accessed all his personal (non-Proterion) emails, some of which contained sensitive information. Employees who change jobs (and move to a competitor) are often suspected---rightly or wrongly---of taking trade secrets with them, one reason why noncompete agreements are frequently so limiting (unreasonably so).  Should employees as a matter of course, delete all sensitive emails, even personal email that might be on the company computer, to protect themselves from potential liability before they change jobs (or is this even enough anymore?)  Or should one simply opt never, ever to send or access personal email accounts using the company computer? What do you think? -AMS