Earlier today (by a vote of 503 to 131 with 18 abstentions), the European Parliament approved the text of a proposed Directive for the protection of trade secrets in the European Union.  Once approved by the European Council (which is typically a formality), the Directive will be binding on all EU member states and will require member states to enact national legislation that meets certain minimum requirements for the protection of trade secrets.

Up to this point, no legal framework has existed for the protection of trade secrets throughout the EU.  In 2013, the European Commission commissioned a study on trade secrets protections in EU member states by comparison to legal protections for trade secrets in the United States, Switzerland, and Japan.  Following that study, which highlighted the lack of uniformity in the laws of EU member states, the European Commission proposed an initial draft of the directive to remedy perceived inadequacies in the existing legal framework.  With adoption of the new directive, EU member states now have a period of 24 months to adopt national legislation that meets certain minimum standards of protection for trade secrets.

Several key provisions of the Directive are notable.

First, the directive provides a uniform definition of a “trade secret” as “information which meets all the following requirements: (a) 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; (b) has commercial value because it is a secret; and (c) has been subject to reasonable steps under the circumstances, by the person lawfully in control of the information, to keep it secret.”  (Directive, Art. 2 ¶ 1.)

Second, the directive defines the following conduct as unlawful:

  • “Acquisition of a trade secret without the consent of the trade secret holder shall be considered unlawful, whenever carried out by . . . unauthorised access to, appropriation of, or copy of any documents, objects, materials, substances or electronic files, lawfully under the control of the trade secret holder, containing the trade secret or from which the trade secret can be deduced; [and] any other conduct which, under the circumstances, is considered contrary to honest commercial practices.” (Directive, Art. 3 ¶ 2.)
  • “The use or disclosure of a trade secret shall be considered unlawful whenever carried out, without the consent of the trade secret holder, by a person who is found to meet any of the following conditions: (a) have [sic] acquired the trade secret unlawfully; (b) be in breach of a legally valid confidentiality agreement or any other duty to maintain secrecy of the trade secret; [or] (c) be in breach of a legally valid contractual or any other duty to limit the use of the trade secret.”  (Directive, Art. 3 ¶3.)
  • “The acquisition, use or disclosure of a trade secret shall also be considered unlawful whenever a person, at the time of acquisition, use or disclosure, knew or should, under the circumstances, have known that the trade secret was obtained directly or indirectly from another person who was using or disclosing the trade secret unlawfully within the meaning of [Art. 3 ¶3].”  (Directive, Art. 3 ¶4.)
  • “The production, offering or placing on the market of infringing goods, or import, export or storage of infringing goods for those purposes, shall also be considered an unlawful use of a trade secret when the person carrying out such activities knew, or should, under the circumstances, have known that the trade secret was used unlawfully within the meaning of [Art. 3 ¶3].”  (Directive, Art. 3 ¶5.)

Third, the Directive establishes exceptions that essentially creates a whistleblower defense to trade secrets misappropriation claims, similar to language in the U.S. Senate’s version of the proposed Defend Trade Secrets Act pending in the U.S. Congress.  The relevant portion of the text provides as follows:

“Member States shall ensure that the application for the measures, procedures and remedies provided for in this Directive is dismissed when the alleged acquisition, use or disclosure of the trade secret was carried out in any of the following cases: (a) for exercising the right to freedom of expression and information as set out in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, including respect for freedom and pluralism of the media; (b) for revealing a misconduct, wrongdoing or illegal activity, provided that the respondent acted for the purpose of protecting the general public interest; (c) the trade secret was disclosed by workers to their representatives as part of the legitimate exercise of their representative functions in accordance with Union or national law, provided that such disclosure was necessary for that exercise; (e) for the purpose of protecting a legitimate interest recognised by Union or national law.”

(Directive, Art. 4.)

Fourth, the Directive requires member states to establish limitations periods for trade secrets claims, as follows: “Member States shall, in accordance with this article, lay down rules on the limitation periods applicable to the substantive claims and actions for the application of the measures, procedures and remedies pursuant to this Directive. . . . The duration of this limitation period shall not exceed six years.”  (Directive, Art. 7.)

Fifth, the Directive requires member states to establish minimum rules for protection and preservation of trade secrets during litigation, including measures that “shall at least include the possibility (a) to restrict access to any document containing trade secrets or alleged trade secrets submitted by the parties or third parties, in whole or in part, to a limited number of persons; (b) to restrict access to hearings, when trade secrets or alleged trade secrets may be disclosed, and their corresponding records or transcript to a limited number of persons; (c) to make available to any person other than those comprised in the limited number of persons referred to in points (a) and (b) a non-confidential version of any judicial decision, in which the passages containing trade secrets have been removed or redacted.”

To take full advantage of the protections provided by the new Directive, as well as the protections that will be afforded by the Defend Trade Secrets Act in the U.S., employers on both sides of the Atlantic would be wise to review their existing practices and procedures to ensure that they are taking “reasonable steps under the circumstances” to protect their trade secrets, including:

  • Reviewing IT policies and procedures for protecting sensitive information;
  • Reviewing existing employment agreements, including restrictive covenant agreements in jurisdictions where they are permitted, to ensure that they provide appropriate levels of protection permitted under applicable law;
  • Reviewing existing employment policies regarding protection of confidential information and ensuring that employees are adequately trained on the policies; and
  • Reviewing employee exiting policies and procedures to ensure that sensitive information is returned upon the end of employment.

In addition, in light of the new whistleblower protections afforded by both the EU Directive and the Defend Trade Secrets Act, employers should ensure that their policies and practices are in compliance with all applicable anti-retaliation laws and that management employees are properly trained on best practices to reduce the risks of whistleblower retaliation claims.