dan-gold-kARZuSYMfrA-unsplashIt's easy, in many instances, to see violations in the IP sphere to be of less consequence than other crimes we see in the news. After all, there's no physical violence done to any of the parties in those cases, with the only harm being financial, and even that is abstract or theoretical, given that what is stolen is value rather than actual dollars. That it's value is still of consequence to the companies losing out on it, and thus to those found guilty of improperly depriving that value to those who rightfully own it.

I've written before about Anthony Levandowski, the man at the center of a trade secret theft case between Alphabet and Uber. Levandowski stood accused of taking proprietary information from his one-time employer Waymo, Alphabet's self-driving car project, to start his own rival company Otto, which was subsequently acquired by Uber. The acquisition of Otto, and the illicit trade secrets contained within, put the conglomerates in conflict with one another in a lawsuit brought by Waymo/Alphabet over the pilfered information.

The case ended with a settlement between Uber and Waymo in 2018, and now Levandowski's legal travails have reached their conclusion, as he was sentenced to eighteen months in prison for the trade secret theft; this, in addition to the over $800,000 in fines and restitution he agreed to pay Waymo in lieu of the full $195 million judgment against him. (That nearly a million dollars owed could be considered getting off light speaks to the gravity of the case.)

The actual consequences of the ruling and sentencing can be debated; how much of the eighteen months might actually be sent in jail, given what we know of how white-collar crime is treated, is questionable, and while the amount Levandowski owes is probably considerable for him, it amounts to something even less than a rounding error for Google's parent company.

Cynicism aside, the case does prove both the value of trade secrets and the importance of protecting them for companies of all sizes. The fact that a Alphabet subsidiary could find itself the victim proves that money alone won't solve IP issues entirely, though it probably helps to have unlimited funds for any necessary lawsuits. It's easy to look at Uber and Alphabet and see both as being fine regardless of the outcome of the case, but for smaller companies, survival is far from assured if they lose trade secrets, or lose a trade secret theft case. Businesses that aren't multi-billion dollar conglomerates should tread carefully where valuable IP is concerned.

Join for Free Business Risk Assessment