The approaching anniversary of E.I. duPont deNemours & Co. v. Christopher is the impetus for this exploration and evaluation of the role of “commercial morality” in trade secret misappropriation doctrine. Christopher is the well-known industrial espionage case in which the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held that flying an airplane over an under-construction manufacturing facility to take photos of briefly-but-inevitably exposed trade secrets was an “improper means” of accessing a trade secret and was contrary to standards of “commercial morality.”
Commercial morality has played a significant but shifting role in trade secret law over the past seven decades and has become an important part of the contemporary trade secret doctrine lexicon, yet courts and commentators have not explored the meaning of this term. This study fills that gap in the literature by analyzing the origins of the commercial morality doctrine and its proper application in trade secret law. The development of U.S. commercial morality doctrine breaks down into four distinct time periods that illustrate the evolution of the doctrine in trade secret law over time, including the shift from the doctrine’s initial use as a way to justify nascent trade secret law and its liability expansion to the doctrine’s modern equitable role in structuring injunctive relief for misappropriation.
The analysis also shows that while courts invoke commercial morality when adjudicating misappropriation claims, they do not define the meaning of the term or provide reasoned analysis of its application. This is problematic when courts use the term in lieu of careful analysis of the facts and reasoning underlying their decision. Explicit recognition of the equitable nature of commercial morality doctrine would facilitate judicial application of the concept in a principled and effective manner.
Lynda J. Oswald,
The Role of "Commercial Morality" in Trade Secret Doctrine,
Notre Dame L. Rev.
Available at: https://scholarship.law.nd.edu/ndlr/vol96/iss1/3