The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals recently held in that whether a trade secret is a protectable interest is an equitable question not affected by the lack of a written instrument. Niemi v. NHK Spring Company, --- F.3d ---, 2008 WL 4273123 (6th Cir. Sept. 19, 2008). 

Richard Niemi is an individual engineer who provides various automobile company manufacturers with designs related to stabilizer bars for automobiles. In the early 1990s, Niemi had an idea for a new method of stabilizer-bar manufacturing, which interested his long term client, New Mather Metals (a subsidiary of Defendant NHK Spring Co.) Although the purchase order through which New Mather ordered the manufacturing tooling, which Niemi claimed to be a “trade secret,” included the clause that “no other or different terms or conditions shall apply to this order unless specifically agreed to in writing. . .”, Niemi claimed that he had assurances that his new method would be kept “confidential.” In order to protect itself from Niemi’s selling his designs to its competitors, New Mather requested that Niemi enter into a “exclusivity agreement,” which Niemi described as “reciprocal” despite any language in the instrument to that effect. “No further writing was needed, in Niemi’s estimation, because New Mather’s obligation represented a continuation of an arrangement that had been in place for 25 or 30 years . . . .”

Niemi learned a few years later that New Mather had disclosed his stabilizer manufacturing trade secret to other designers, and he brought an action against New Mather and its parent companies for misappropriation of trade secrets, as well as for other claims. The district court ultimately granted summary judgment to Defendants on the trade secrets claim, finding that Niemi had not taken sufficient steps to keep his designs secret.

In reviewing Niemi’s appeal of judgment against his trade secrets claim, the Sixth Circuit considered Ohio’s adopted Uniform Trade Secrets Act, particularly focusing on the factor requiring “reasonable” efforts to maintain secrecy. Ultimately, it concluded that there were direct, disputed material facts sufficient to warrant reversal of the district court.

The decision is most significant, however, for the reasoning underlying its rejection of one of Defendants’ arguments; namely, that Niemi’s “oral reciprocal exclusivity agreement” was barred by the statute of frauds. In rejecting that argument, the court quoted Ohio law in noting that “protection afforded by trade secret laws is not a function of property interests or contract rights, but of ‘equitable principles of good faith applicable to confidential relationships.’” In other words, whether there is a contract or property interest in the trade secrets is “irrelevant” because trade secret protection derives from equity.

The progenitor of the principle quoted by the Sixth Circuit was Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ opinion in Masland, where he observed that, in “explaining the nature of a trade secret . . . trade secret laws are not those of property but the equitable principles of good faith applicable to confidential relationships.” Valco Cincinnati v. N & D Machining Service, Inc., 492 N.E.2d 814, 817 (Ohio 1986) (citing E.I. Du pont de Nemours Powder Co. v. Masland, 244 U.S. 100 (1917) (Holmes, J.)).

In any event, although the fundamental character of a trade secret may be one of confidence protected by equity, there is some dispute among the states regarding whether a trade secret is a property right. Compare Envirotech Corp. v. Callahan, 872 P.2d 487, 494 (Utah App. 1994) (trade secret is a property right) with ConFold Pacific, Inc. v. Polaris Industries, Inc., 433 F.3d 952, 959 (7th Cir. 2006) (holding that, under Wisconsin law, a trade secret is not a property right but instead an interest protectable by contract).

The Sixth Circuit is correct that the lack of a written instrument does not itself negate a claim under the Uniform Trade Secrets Act. Certainly, if the existence of a written agreement – such as the “oral” mutual exclusivity and confidentiality agreement present in Niemi – would tend to increase the likelihood of a protectable trade secret, then its absence should mitigate against it. But the Sixth Circuit seemed to go a step further in concluding that because a trade secret’s nature is one of equity, the lack of a contractual or property claim renders wholly “irrelevant” the lack of a written instrument.