Intellectual property law is developing in step with the rapid development of technologies, the processes of creation, operation, and implementation of which are the subject of this law. Companies suing on these issues are far from always able to solve everything with the help of patent or copyright law, antitrust law, and much more. The intellectual property industry has become an independent field that includes all these issues in one section. This paper examines the theft of commercial secrets of an oil company by an employee of another state, comparing this case with similar ones.
At an oil company in Oklahoma City, a Chinese-born scientist collected classified business data over some time in order to transport the technology back to his homeland. “A federal court sentenced the former research fellow to 24 months in prison for stealing more than $ 1 billion in confidential information from his employer” (Department of Justice, 2020b, para. 1). The risk of intellectual property theft in commercial enterprises is always high, especially for researchers, which forces companies to prescribe this responsibility in an employment contract, often in a separate document (Li & Alon, 2020). In this particular case, the junior researcher was copying materials without the employer’s knowledge related to the development of batteries for accumulating stationary energy.
As a consequence, the ethical dilemma of a given employee can be determined by the desire to bring innovative development to his country at the cost of risking his reputation, responsibility, place of work, and career. Management responded by firing the employee outright and handing him over to the appropriate authorities, who have repeatedly highlighted the issue and its implications for the free market and the technology economy in press releases (Department of Justice, 2020b). The junior researcher, in general, was aware of the illegality of his activities, but in the end, he was unwilling or unaware of the direct harm to the oil company. All data was stored on a flash drive and hard drive, which were seized during the search. As a punishment, the junior researcher will also receive a fine of 150 thousand dollars from the employer. In order to assess the actions of management, representatives of the law, and the offender himself, one should refer to other similar examples and compare them in relation to them.
For example, there was also a relatively recent case in China with the theft of trade secrets of the Kabo company. Manufacturing secrets were stolen by several employees, who were eventually ordered to compensate for the loss, apologize and end the violation (Wininger, 2021). The uniqueness of this case was that the court, for the first time, took into account and proved the personal benefit of the accused party, which, as a rule, is not declared openly. Considering many factors, such as the duration of the violation, its scale, and an obstacle to proving, the court came to a rather impressive fine, almost the maximum of all possible. In this regard, perhaps, the oil company’s management should have gone into closer cooperation with law enforcement officials to compensate for a much more significant amount for their activities. In a press release, it was clarified that the damage to the theft was about one billion dollars, while the actual fine of the employee turned out to be only 150 thousand. Another thing is that an employee could hardly have paid such an impressive amount in any reasonable time, and at least many employees acted in the case of the Kabo company.
Another similar case from the United States involves secrets within an aircraft company. A North Carolina engineer conspired with other employees to steal design information from aircraft manufacturers for competitors (Department of Justice, 2020a). The court sentenced the former employee to 70 months in federal prison and a $ 2,000 fine. Naturally, this fine cannot cover all the company’s alleged losses, but the length of the term of imprisonment is much longer than that of a junior researcher in the case of an oil company. This verdict is motivated by the fact that intellectual property has an equivalent in money and the time and effort spent on development, which is sometimes much more important than financial resources. The employee’s enrichment with light labor and illegal activities turned out to be fine imprisonment.
Judicial practice is gaining invaluable experience for a fairer solution to theft cases, for example, of trade secrets. Intellectual property often does not have clear benchmarks for quantitative and qualitative correlation with finances, as often, employees engaged in illegal activities will not compensate for the company’s alleged losses in their entire life. In this regard, no matter what dilemma the employee faces, the court bears a solemn responsibility to find a compromise solution to resolve the conflict, which, as a rule, is imprisonment, a fine, and supervision of a negligent employee for a certain period. This area of legal activity will continuously develop and supplement since it directly depends on technical progress, which does not stop for a minute.
Department of Justice. (2020a). Defendant who conspired to steal aircraft secrets sentenced to 70 months in federal prison. Web.
Department of Justice. (2020b). Chinese National Sentenced for Stealing Trade Secrets Worth $1 Billion. Web.
Li, S., & Alon, I. (2020). China’s intellectual property rights provocation: A political economy view. Journal of International Business Policy, 3(1), 60-72.
Wininger, A. (2021). The Intellectual Property Tribunal of China’s Supreme People’s Court Released Top 10 Cases of Technical Intellectual Property Rights in 2020. The National Law Review. Web.