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Under Attack: Justice Department Has The Power To Prosecute Trade-Secret Thieves

by Glenn Hess
July 8, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 27

Credit: DuPont
Dupont’s Kevlar technology was the target of attempted trade-secret theft.
A DuPont technician inspects Kevlar p-aramid fiber bobbins.
Credit: DuPont
Dupont’s Kevlar technology was the target of attempted trade-secret theft.

In the U.S., trade-secret protection is primarily a state law matter. However, the federal Economic Espionage Act of 1996 criminalizes some forms of trade-secret theft and also empowers the Justice Department to initiate enforcement proceedings. Under that law, it is a felony to knowingly steal a trade secret to “benefit any foreign government, foreign instrumentality, or foreign agent.”

The Justice Department has prosecuted more than a dozen cases against foreign-government-related entities targeting U.S. trade secrets since the law’s enactment. Officials say the cases are difficult to bring because prosecutors must prove that the thieves are linked to a foreign government.

Nevertheless, the department has won at least four DuPont-related cases in recent years, including the 2009 conviction of a former DuPont engineer, who was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison for stealing trade secrets related to Kevlar high-strength fabric and giving them to a South Korean company. The next year, an ex-DuPont research chemist pleaded guilty to stealing information related to light-emitting diodes and passing them to a Chinese university. He received a 14-month prison sentence.

DuPont says it has numerous measures in place to protect its information assets. “We also have ongoing communications with the federal government regarding intellectual property issues, and we seek their assistance as needed in order to ensure the protection of our proprietary technology,” the company tells C&EN.


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