Books Developments in PIL Scholarship

Cross-Border Trade Secret Disputes in the European Union: Jurisdiction and Applicable Law

Lydia Lundstedt, Senior Lecturer in Private International Law at the Stockholm University and in Intellectual Property Law at the Linköping University, has accepted the invitation of the editors of the blog to present her recent book, titled ‘Cross-Border Trade Secret Disputes in the European Union: Jurisdiction and Applicable Law’, published by Edward Elgar.

In today’s knowledge-based and data-driven economy, information is a company’s most valuable asset. The most common form of legal protection for information are laws that protect trade secrets. In contrast to patents, copyright, and trademarks, whose importance for protecting intangible assets is well-recognised, trade secret protection has often come in their shadow as the less important form of protection. The importance of legal protection for trade secrets is however gaining acceptance and many states have sharpened their laws on trade secret protection. In determining the form and level of trade secret protection, states consider (often constitutional) rules on the freedom of information, the freedom to compete and operate a business, employee mobility, and privacy. Depending on the social, political, and economic environment of the state, the form and level of protection may vary considerably.

To ensure a ‘sufficient and consistent level’ of protection under the laws of all the Member States, the European Union (EU) enacted Directive 2016/943 on the Protection of Undisclosed Know-how and Business Information (Trade Secrets) against their Unlawful Acquisition, Use and Disclosure. The Directive is in the form of a minimum directive, so Member States may provide for more far-reaching protection. Complicating matters is the fact that trade secret protection is a bit of a ‘strange bird’, which is reflected in the diverging doctrinal basis for trade secret protection. This divergence continues even after the implementation of the Trade Secret Directive, where some Member States continue to provide protection under unfair competition law, others have introduced a sui generis form of protection, and one Member State protects trade secrets as an intellectual property (IP) right. In addition, all Member States continue to protect trade secrets under contract law, and under the legal systems of some Member States, a trade secret holder may raise concurrent claims based on contractual and non-contractual grounds.

Trade secret protection is even more diverse on the international level. The Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) guarantees only a minimum level of protection for ‘undisclosed information’ and leaves a wide margin of discretion with respect to how Members can afford protection. The inclusion of trade secret protection in a treaty on intellectual property adds to the confusion about the correct classification of trade secrets.

With the ease of digital communications, employee migration, and international trade, trade secret violations can easily have a cross-border, and even a global dimension.  Unlike physical assets, information can move at the speed of light and become ubiquitous instantaneously.  In this respect, trade secrets are like (traditional) IP rights in that trade secrets and IP rights consist of commercially valuable information that are often exploited over national borders in order to take full advantage of their economic potential. In another respect, however, trade secrets differ from IP rights, which pursuant to the territoriality principle, may be in the public domain in some states without affecting their protection in others. This is not the case for trade secret protection because if the information becomes freely accessible, it will no longer fulfil the criterium of secrecy that is required for its continued protection.

Within the EU, one would expect that the environment would be conducive for the litigation of cross-border trade secret disputes because the rules on private international law are harmonised at the EU level. Despite this, cross-border litigation and enforcement of trade secrets is considered to be extremely difficult and is also rare. This may be due to the varying doctrinal bases for trade secret protection and the fact that trade secret violations can take place in contractual and non-contractual contexts. Moreover, if the trader secret holder brings proceedings against a former employee, weaker party rules will affect the choice of forum and applicable law. Another complicating factor is that in some cases, jurisdiction and the applicable law is based on the location of damage, which is difficult to localise as trade secrets are intangible and can be acquired, disclosed, and used everywhere. What is more, there may be a number of potential defendants located in different countries that allegedly violated the trade secrets, and it may be difficult to join them all in one proceeding and under one law.

The book investigates how the EU private international law rules can be interpreted to facilitate the objectives of the EU Trade Secret Directive when trade secrets are litigated and enforced over national borders. A basic assumption for this study is that effective and consistent protection of trade secrets in cross-border situations is facilitated when the parties can resolve their dispute before one court that has jurisdiction over the entire dispute and under one law, resulting in a judgment capable of being enforced in all Member States. When analysing which Member States have jurisdiction and which law or laws are applicable as well as the scope of the jurisdiction and of the applicable law, the book considers the competing interests of the parties and the EU public interest in general.

The book concentrates on three common categories of defendants, namely, contractual partners, employees, and competitors, and describes and analyses where each respective category of defendant can be sued and what law(s) is(are) applicable from an EU private international law perspective. The book also considers whether any of the rules in the Trade Secret Directive might be overriding mandatory rules, public policy (ordre public), or non-excludable rules that displace corresponding rule in the lex causae.

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