markus-lompa-1ToObUqWhd8-unsplashWe don't often talk about trade secrets in this space, because they are by definition secretive and unreported. It's easy to understand and follow stories about trademarks or patents because we can identify what's been infringed upon and how it relates to the products we know and consume. Trade secrets, on the other hand, have to stay vague in what we read of them; companies don't want their proprietary information to disseminate any further than it's already been. You protect your trademarks and patents by declaring them to the world as yours; you protect your trade secrets by telling no one.

One of the most famous trade secrets, to the extent that secrets can be famous, is Coca-Cola's secret formula that gives the soft drink its distinctive and beloved flavor that sets it apart from competitors in the minds of partisans. So when you come across a story involving Coke and trade secrets, you worry that the secret is out and that some unscrupulous actors will soon bring a copycat to market.

Fortunately, in the Coke trade secret case in question, the recipe is safe, but other valuable proprietary information has found its way outside the confines of its corporate offices. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, prosecutors allege that as Xiaorong You was arriving at her last days as a Coca-Cola employee, she took confidential trade secrets from Coke vendors related to can coatings and uploaded the documents to her Google Drive. It's further alleged that the ill-gotten trade secrets helped You win investment in a new firm aimed at making can coatings.

You was arrested at a spartan Lansing, Michigan apartment with her passport and thousands in varied currency, which at least sounds like something one might see in spy fiction. Indeed, the FBI alleges that the theft was part of a plan by You and others for the express purpose of starting their own can coating company withing China. It should be noted in all this that You has pleaded not guilty to the charges filed against her. And while You might ultimately be exonerated, there is a long and troubled history when it comes to the United States and China as it relates to intellectual property, although the Chinese government has begun to at least say the right things about cracking down on the problem.

If nothing else, the story should serve as a fresh reminder for companies to keep their trade secrets under lock-and-key, metaphorically and literally as needed. It takes but one set of prying eyes with bad intentions for your valuable information to fall into the hands of another company that might not have the moral fiber to turn down the chance to take away a competitive advantage.

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