Trade secret law is a puzzle. Courts and scholars have struggled for over a century to figure out why we protect trade secrets. The puzzle is not in understanding what trade secret law covers; there seems to be widespread agreement on the basic contours of the law. Nor is the problem that people object to the effects of the law. While scholars periodically disagree over the purposes of the law, and have for almost a century, they seem to agree that misappropriation of trade secrets is a bad thing that the law should punish. Rather, the puzzle is a theoretical one: no one can seem to agree where trade secret law comes from or how to fit it into the broader framework of legal doctrine. Courts, lawyers, scholars, and treatise writers argue over whether trade secrets are a creature of contract, of tort, of property, or even of criminal law. None of these different justifications has proven entirely persuasive. Worse, they have contributed to inconsistent treatment of the basic elements of a trade secret cause of action and uncertainty as to the relationship between trade secret laws and other causes of action. Robert Bone has gone so far as to suggest that this theoretical incoherence indicates that there is no need for trade secret law as a separate doctrine at all. He reasons that whatever purposes are served by trade secret law can be served just as well by the common law doctrines that underlie it, whichever those turn out to be.4

In this Article, I suggest that trade secrets can be justified as a form, not of traditional property, but of intellectual property (IP). The incentive justification for encouraging new inventions is straightforward. Granting legal protection for those new inventions not only encourages their creation, but enables an inventor to sell her idea. And while we have other laws that encourage inventions, notably patent law, trade secrecy offers some significant advantages for inventors over patent protection. It is cheaper and quicker to obtain, since it doesn't require government approval, and it extends to protection of types of business and process information that likely would not be patentable.

 

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