Trade Secrets, Confidential Information, and the Criminal Law

By Cross, John T. | McGill Law Journal, April 2001 | Go to article overview

Trade Secrets, Confidential Information, and the Criminal Law


Cross, John T., McGill Law Journal


The author examines the extent to which property offences in the criminal law can be used to police the misappropriation of trade secrets and confidential information. After assessing the long-standing debate on whether information can be classified as property, he argues that answering the question one way or the other involves circular reasoning. When judges label information "property," it is to enable them to grant the desired remedies. Courts should instead ask more directly whether certain information should be protected under the circumstances. It follows that precedents holding that certain information is property in one area of the law should not be authoritative in others. The article then explores efforts made in Great Britain, Canada and the United States to apply criminal property offences to industrial espionage. Since these provisions presume the misappropriation or damage to tangible property, they are unsuitable to cases involving information. The author then suggests an alternative approach based upon the different types of values inherent in confidential information: "use value" and "monopoly value." Unfortunately, theft and vandalism provisions in existing criminal statutes protect only "use value," although it is the monopoly on information that is its primary source of value to the owner. The author concludes that legislation is required to define the mens rea and actus reus requirement in terms designed to protect the unique value of confidential information.

L'auteur evalue le potentiel qu'a le droit criminel de prevenir l'appropriation malhonnete de l'information confidentielle et des secrets commerciaux en la qualifiant d'atteinte au droit de propriete. L'auteur expose le long debat sur la question a savoir si l'information peut etre l'objet d'un droit de propriete; il conclut que dans un cas comme dans l'autre la reponse implique un raisonnement circulaire. L'attribution du terme << propriete >> par les juges depend du resultat qu'ils veulent obtenir. Les tribunaux devraient plutot centrer leur raisonnement sur l'importance de proteger ou non l'information en question dans les circonstances, sans se sentir lies par la jurisprudence anterieure qui aurait caracterise autrement ce meme type d'information dans un autre con texte juridique. L'auteur examine les decisions portant sur l'espionnage industriel rendues en Grande-Bretagne, au Canada et aux EtatsUnis, pour conclure que le droit criminel actuel est difficilement applicable parce que l'atteinte criminelle au droit de propriete presuppose qu'il porte sur une chose tangible dont on veut proteger la libre utilisation par son proprietaire. Dans le cas de l'information, il s'agit de proteger non pas seulement l'utilisation que peut en faire son proprietaire, mais egalement le monopole qu'il a sur l'information. C'est en effet le monopole qui confere a l'information sa valeur et c'est en fonction du monopole qu'il faudrait, selon l'auteur, repenset le droit criminel pour accorder une meilleure protection a l'information confidentielle.

Synopsis

Introduction

I.   Applying Property-Based Criminal Laws to the Misappropriation of
     Information
     A. Information as "Property"
     B. Specific Applications of Criminal Offences

II.  A Value-Based Analysis
     A. The Values Inherent in Information
     B. The Values Protected by the Criminal Law of Property
        1. Theft
        2. Other Property Crimes

III. The Future of the Criminal Law and Information

Conclusion

Introduction

If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, ... . Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. …

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Trade Secrets, Confidential Information, and the Criminal Law
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