Since 2017, we have been covering the legal saga of Anthony Levandowski – the executive/engineer who allegedly stole Google’s trade secrets related to self-driving car technology and used it for the benefit of his new company, which he ultimately sold to Uber. The saga included civil litigation, arbitration, bankruptcy, and criminal charges, but it seems like the story is coming to an end.
On August 4, 2020, Levandowski finally admitted wrongdoing and plead guilty to one count of trade secret theft in California Federal Court. Levandowski’s lawyers sought house arrest in lieu of prison time claiming that he had suffered enough because he lost his job, lost his reputation, had over $100 million in civil judgments against him, was financially ruined, and recently filed for bankruptcy. The judge seemed sympathetic to Levandowski but ultimately sentenced him to 1.5 years in prison, ordered $700,000 in restitution, and required Levandowski to give speeches to the public titled “Why I Went to Federal Prison.” In handing down the sentence the judge noted that Levandowski was a “brilliant man” and believed he was a good person, but the judge also noted that this was no small crime and the only way to deter future similar actions was jail time – “You’re giving the green light to every future engineer to steal trade secrets, “ he told Levandowski’s attorneys. “Prison time is the answer to that.”
Hopefully, the judge is right and the publicity related to this saga and Levandowski’s fate will cause others to think twice before stealing valuable trade secrets. But the reality is that there will always be individuals in the world that will risk prison time and financial ruin if they believe the payday is great enough. Therefore, it is imperative that you put in place policies and procedures to protect your trade secrets and confidential information and that you quickly and thoroughly investigate suspicions of trade secret theft. Our Trade Secret Team has over 50 years of cumulative experience in this space and can pass along some helpful tips as you launch your investigation:
- Secure and preserve all relevant computing devices and email/file-sharing accounts
- Consider enlisting the help of outside computer forensic experts
- Analyze the employee’s computing activities on company computers and accounts
- Determine whether there is any abnormal file access, including during non-business hours
- Examine the employee’s use of external storage devices and whether those devices have been returned
- Review text message and call history from the employee’s company issued cell phone (and never instruct anyone to factory reset cell phones)
- Enlist the help of outside counsel to set the parameters of the investigation
The timing of these investigations is critical. Jones Walker’s Trade Secret Team has assisted numerous companies with these investigations and can help strengthen how your company protects its trade secrets. Please contact me, Tom Hubert, or P.J. Kee if your company finds itself in a potential trade secret dispute.