Tag: intellectual property

Computer ForensicsComputer SecuritySecurity

Tesla Trade Secrets Lawsuit: Investigators & Expert Witnesses

Did you hear about Tesla suing a former employer for stealing trade secrets?

Early last week, Tesla CEO Elon Musk emailed Tesla employees reporting another employee had done some pretty significant sabotage to the company’s manufacturing operations. According to one Ars Technica article, “In the all-hands email to Tesla staff, Musk wrote that the employee had made ‘direct code changes’ to the company’s production systems, as well as exporting ‘large amounts’ of Tesla’s data to unknown third parties.”

In the same article, Ars Technica quotes Musk’s email further, “the alleged saboteur could have been working with short sellers, oil and gas companies—whom he described as ‘sometimes not super nice’—or ‘the multitude of big gas/diesel car company competitors.’ Of this last group, Musk reminded his employees that, since the traditional OEMs have been known to cheat emissions tests, ‘maybe they’re willing to cheat in other ways.'”

Mr. Musk is not subtle in his indication that he believes the saboteur may have been working with others in a coordinated effort of corporate espionage and theft of trade secrets.

Later in the week, Tesla filed suit against a now-former-employee, Martin Tripp. We can only assume this is the employee to whom Mr. Musk referred in the earlier email, given the civil complaint allegations against Mr. Tripp. The civil complaint link is courtesy of Cyrus Farivar of Ars Technica.

The civil complaint alleges Mr. Tripp violated the Defend Trade Secrets Act and the Nevada Uniform Trade Secrets Act. Further, Tesla alleges of breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty of loyalty, and violating the Nevada Computer Crimes Law.

To me, the interesting part was the “prayer for relief” (an absurdly arcane way of saying “this is what we want!”).  Here’s the summary. Take note of the first item:

tesla-prayer-for-relief

Section A goes hand in hand with Elon Musk’s comments indicating the saboteur may have been acting with unknown third parties. The legal action seems intended to prohibit the use of any stolen trade secrets and preventing any potential financial or competitive damage resulting from corporate espionage.

What experts played a role or may play a role?

The case being brand new (complaint filed last week), I don’t expect we’ll hear about expert witness involvement for some time. However, I do imagine some experts (working for Tesla) were involved in uncovering the alleged sabotage.

Digital Forensics, Computer Security, Corporate Security, Software, Human Resources…

We know from the complaint there are allegations that Mr. Tripp stole trade secrets from Tesla. According to the complaint, Mr. Tripp “has thus far admitted to writing software that hacked Tesla’s manufacturing operating system (MOS) and to transferring several gigabytes of Tesla data to outside entities.” To someone like me, with fairly basic coding experience, it appears Mr. Tripp was quite advanced. He was able to bypass Tesla’s internal security to install hacking software.

Mr. Tripp has not admitted, but Tesla further alleges, “he also wrote computer code to periodically export Tesla’s data off it’s network and into the hands of third parties.” This sentence alone makes me wonder why Tesla did not add potential JOHN DOES to the complaint. Nevertheless, the complaint continues, “his hacking software was operating on three separate computer systems of other individuals at Tesla so that the data would be exported even after he left the company and so that those individuals would be falsely implicated as guilty parties.” Again, I mention this is a pretty advanced thought process because Mr. Tripp had plans to cover his tracks.

Given this information, I presume Tesla’s corporate security in conjunction with their legal department had to investigate Mr. Tripp’s actions for some time before terminating his employment and filing suit.

This investigation was likely to include those with knowledge and experience in digital forensics, computer security, and hacking software. Since the investigation involved an employee, I suppose there’s a chance human resources was included in the investigation as well.

Why was the investigation likely to include this variety of individuals? Tesla had to identify the breach using digital forensics and computer security experts. After recognizing the hacking software in their system, it’s possible they would have reviewed the code to see how it breached their computer security and I assume they would be able to identify the terminals on which the code resided. Since Mr. Tripp had taken precautions to misdirect Tesla, they may have identified the three other employees as responsible parties early in the investigation, causing them to monitor those employees.

Having watched enough spy movies to pretend I know what I’m talking about, I have to imagine Tesla would want to identify the third party entities mentioned in the complaint. So, they probably allowed some data to be exported while they were monitoring the situation in an effort to identify those who may have conspired with Mr. Tripp. With my spy movie knowledge, prognostications, and five bucks, you can get a cup of coffee.

Of this, I am certain. Tesla had to use investigators familiar with protection of intellectual property and digital evidence collection. Experts listed above would have the appropriate specialization to conduct this investigation in preparation for the recent litigation.

So as the litigation develops and if it goes to trial, I will expect to see software, digital forensics, computer security, corporate security, and human resources experts and consultants assisting in discovery and preparing for trial.

 

 

 

 

 

Expert WitnessIntellectual PropertyLitigationPatent Infringement

The Tech Industry and Litigious NPEs

Patent InfringementIt comes as no surprise that the tech industry is the most litigated of 2012-2013. With companies such as Apple, Samsung, Verizon, LG, and Google vying for major shares of the market, competition can get fierce. For over a year, Samsung and Apple have been slugging it out over the copy and design of the iPhone’s software features. These, however, are operating companies with products and services to sell, both of which are vulnerable to fundamentally important legal counter-assertion defenses. Intellectual property litigation gets even more complicated and egregious when it is engendered by entities with no competitive products and services. The same defenses do not apply to to these entities. Even with new and pending patent reform laws in place, high tech litigation is overwhelming our court system and affecting the bottom lines of many high tech companies in industries such as electronics, communications, semiconductors, and software.

The most notable combatants in the IT litigation arena are the Non-Practicing Entities (NPEs), derogatorily known as “patent trolls.” These companies base their revenue stream solely on collecting, licensing, and enforcing patents, litigating whenever there is a threat to their patent’s market share, whether real or dubious. Although under criticism from some, James Bessen and Michael Meurer from Boston University released a highly publicized study estimating that the direct cost of NPE patent assertions is “substantial, totaling about $29 billion in accrued costs in 2011.” Although this includes patent infringement awards in all industries, high tech makes up fifty percent of NPE suits filed.

Litigation brought on by NPEs, both costly and time consuming, is difficult to defend. According to PatentFreedom, a company dedicated to assessing and addressing specific NPE risks, since NPEs “do not sell products or services (other than the licensing of their patents), NPEs typically do not infringe on the patent rights contained in others’ patent portfolios. As a result, they are essentially invulnerable to the threat of counter-assertion, which is otherwise one of the most important defensive – and stabilizing – measures in patent disputes.”

The America Invents Act (AIA) passed in September of 2011, which was meant to limit the number of defendants an NPE can join in a suit, has not curbed the amount of patent infringement litigation occurring today. The major tenet of AIA is a shift from “first to invent” to “first to file.” As such, NPEs can no longer gather all possible defendants in an effort to maximize awards. With good intentions, Congress set out to decrease the “deep pocket” syndrome, thereby reducing the number of suits filed. Although the AIA changes the economics of litigation, it has not, in the past few years, decreased the number of cases filed by NPEs. In fact, PatentFreedom estimates that, NPE  litigation against operating companies has increased by 170 from 2012 to 2013, and this is only the halfway mark. In 2012, the number of cases filed against operating companies was 4,229. So far this year, that number has increased to 4,400.

In March of 2013, the Shield Act was passed to curb the amount of egregious lawsuits brought on by NPEs. In effect, it makes NPEs responsible for the litigation costs of failed suits. However, the Shield Act requires defendants to take the suit all the way to final judgement. Since much time and resources are required to litigate these suits, most settle well before judgement. This leaves the door wide open for opportunistic NPEs.
Considering they have the right to sue, do NPEs, by their nature, have an unfair advantage over the operating companies they are suing. Considering the state of affairs today, should Congress do more to level the playing field? Only time will tell how this battle plays out.

ConsultantsExpert WitnessIntellectual PropertyLitigationPatent Infringement

PATENT INFRINGEMENT – CEASE AND DESIST!

Patent infringement litigation has been on the rise since the mid 1990s due mainly to the increase in computer-age technology.  Most patent infringement cases involve one company charging another company with selling or using its product for their own economic advantage.  Many times, the Defendant in a patent litigation case has no idea he is infringing on another’s intellectual property, but ignorance is never a defense in the law.  The Defendant will still have to cease benefiting from the patented item and pay the allotted damages to the Plaintiff.   If  the infringement is proven to be willful, damages in such a case can be increased up to three times the actual amount of damage.

Tetra Images / Getty Image

Patent law is governed by Federal Law and the rules are set out by the United States Patent and Trademark Office, 35 U.S.C. 271 Infringement of patent. – Patent Laws.  To find that a patent has indeed been infringed upon, several items must be found. In an article entitled, “Understanding Patent Infringement Legal Opinions”, David V. Radack sets out the following:

  1. A copy of the allegedly infringed patent.
  2. The file wrapper or file history of the patent which includes a copy of the patent application as filed, communication from the patent examiner in charge of the application, and communication from the applicant to the patent examiner.
  3. A copy of the prior art references cited during the prosecution of the patent application.
  4. The allegedly infringing product or device itself. Preferably, a commercially sold device is best.

Once this information is analyzed, many times with the help of Patent Infringement Expert Witnesses and Consultants, an opinion summary is provided.  It is this opinion which sets forth how the parties will proceed, how  the Defendant should respond to a cease and desist order, if changes can be made to Defendant’s product which will eliminate the violation, or to negate a charge of intentional infringement.

Considering the litigation gridlock currently in the Federal Court system, it may be worth it to seek the knowledge of  a Patent Expert or Consultant concurrent with the development of a new device or product. If not then, retaining a Consultant prior to marketing the product could save an enormous amount of time and money.

Please click the link for a list of knowledgeable Intellectual Property, Patent Infringement and Trademark Expert Witnesses and Consultants.