Self-Driving Car Pioneer Charged with Trade Secrets Theft

Earlier this year, a federal grand jury indicted pioneer of self-driving car technology and serial entrepreneur, Anthony Levandowski, with trade secret theft. The United States Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California charged Levandowski with 33 counts of theft and attempted theft of trade secrets from Google under 18 U.S.C. § 1832 of the Economic Espionage Act (EEA).

According to the indictment, Levandowski allegedly downloaded more than 14,000 files containing crucial information about Google’s autonomous-vehicle research before leaving the company in 2016. The indictment also alleges that Levandowski then made an unauthorized transfer of the files to his personal laptop. Some of the files that Levandowski allegedly took from Google included private schematics for proprietary circuit boards and designs for light sensor technology, known as Lidar, which is used in self-driving cars.

Levandowski joined Uber in 2016 after leaving Google when Uber bought his new self-driving trucking start-up, “Otto.” Levandowski has repeatedly asserted that he never disclosed the download, nor made use of the information while he was at Uber. If convicted, Levandowski faces a maximum sentence of 10 years and a fine of $250,000, plus restitution, for each violation, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office.

Levandowski’s attorneys issued a statement on his behalf stating he is innocent of the charges.

“He didn’t steal anything, from anyone,” the statement reads. “This case rehashes claims already discredited in a civil case that settled more than a year and a half ago. The downloads at issue occurred while Anthony was still working at Google—when he and his team were authorized to use the information. None of these supposedly secret files ever went to Uber or to any other company.”

Summary of the Economic Espionage Act

The EEA was enacted in 1996 to promote and protect the national and economic security interests of the United States. The EEA classified trade secrets as a fourth type of intellectual property after copyrights, trademarks, and patents and extended federal criminal protection to trade secrets. In 2016, Congress extended the coverage of the EEA to civil litigation with the enactment of the Defend Trade Secrets Act. During the debate and amendment leading up to the passage of the EEA, the legislature discussed at length the importance of trade secrets to the U.S. economy noting, “a piece of information can be as valuable as a factory is to business. The theft of that information can do more harm than if an arsonist torched that factory.”

At the time of the EEA’s passage in 1996, many commentators were concerned that the EEA would stifle technological innovation and the government would abuse the intent of the EEA by turning garden variety trade secret cases into criminal matters. However, time as shown this fear to be unfounded as the United States has only brought roughly 200 cases for violation of the EEA since 1996. Since 2010, almost all of the EEA violation investigations and prosecutions have involved defendants with a “Chinese connection.” Based on this, there is no evidence to suggest that government enforcement of the EEA has stifled technological innovation.

If you are an employer seeking to protect your confidential or proprietary information or you are an employee being asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement, it is always advisable to seek the assistance of experienced trade secrets and intellectual property attorney.

Super Lawyers named Illinois commercial law trial attorney Peter Lubin a Super Lawyer and Illinois business dispute attorney Patrick Austermuehle a Rising Star in the Categories of Class Action, Business Litigation, and Consumer Rights Litigation. Lubin Austermuehle’s Illinois business trial lawyers have over thirty years of experience in litigating complex class action, copyright, noncompete agreement, trademark and libel suits, consumer rights and many different types of business and commercial litigation disputes.  Our Oak Park and Elgin business dispute lawyers, civil litigation lawyers and copyright attorneys handle emergency business lawsuits involving copyrights, trademarks, injunctions, and TROS, covenant not to compete, franchise, distributor and dealer wrongful termination and trade secret lawsuits and many different kinds of business disputes involving shareholders, partnerships, closely-held businesses and employee breaches of fiduciary duty. We also assist Chicago and Oak Brook area businesses and business owners who are victims of fraud. You can contact us by calling at 630-333-0333.  You can also contact us online here.

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