This is a crucial time to remember that being disloyal to your employer, on its own, is not illegal. Employees like Levandowski have a clear duty of secrecy with respect to certain information they receive through their employment. But if none of this information constitutes trade secrets, there is no civil trade secret claim. In other words, for a civil trade secrets misappropriation claim, if there is no trade secret, there is no cause of action.
For criminal cases like Levandowski's, the situation is more complicated. The federal criminal trade secret statute shares the same definition of "trade secret" as the federal civil trade secret statute. See 18 U.S.C. § 1839(3). However, unlike in civil trade secret cases, attempt and conspiracy can be actionable. 18 U.S.C. § 1832(a)(4)-(5). This means that even if the crime was not successful—because the information the employee took wasn't actually a trade secret—the employee can still go to jail. See U.S. v. Hsu, 155 F. 3d 189 (3rd Cir. 1998); U.S. v. Martin, 228 F.3d 1 (2000).
The Levandoski indictment brings counts of criminal theft and attempted theft of trade secrets. (There is no conspiracy charge, which perhaps suggests the government will not argue Uber was knowingly involved.) But the inclusion of an "attempt" crime means the key question is not just whether Levandowski stole actual trade secrets. It is whether he attempted to do so while having the appropriate state of mind. The criminal provisions under which Levandowski is charged, codified in18 U.S.C. §§ 1832(a)(1), (2), (3) and (4), provide that "[w]hoever, with intent to convert a trade secret ... to the economic benefit of anyone other than the owner thereof, and intending or knowing that the offense will, injure any owner of that trade secret, knowingly—steals...obtains... possesses...[etcetera]" a trade secret, or "attempts to" do any of those things, "shall... be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 10 years, or both…"
This means Levandowski can be found guilty of attempting to steal trade secrets that never actually existed. This seems odd. It contradicts fundamental ideas behind why we protect trade secrets. As law professor, Mark Lemley, observed in his oft-cited Stanford Law Review article, modern trade secret law is not a free-ranging license for judges to punish any acts they perceive as disloyal or immoral. It is a special form of property regime. Charles Tait Graves, a partner at Wilson, Sonsini, Goodrich & Rosati, who teaches trade secrets at U.C. Hastings College of Law, echoes this conclusion. Treating trade secrets as an employer’s property, Graves writes, counterintuitively "offers better protection for employees who change jobs” than the alternatives, because it means courts must carefully "define the boundaries" of the right, and may require the court to rule in the end "that not all valuable information learned on the job is protectable.” See Charles Tait Graves, Trade Secrets As Property: Theory and Consequences, 15 J. Intell. Prop. L. 39 (2007).
So where does that leave Levandowski? In Google/Waymo’s civil case against Uber, Uber got off with a settlement deal, presumably in part because Google recognized the difficulty in proving key pieces of its civil case. Despite initial appearances, Google’s civil action was not actually a slam dunk. It was not clear Uber actually received the specific files Levandowski took or that the information contained in those files constituted trade secrets, versus generally known information or Levandonwki's own "general knowledge, skill, and experience.” (I discuss this latter issue in my recent article, The General Knowledge, Skill, and Experience Paradox, forthcoming in the Boston College Law Review).
But thanks to criminal remedies under 18 U.S.C. §1832, and that pesky "attempt" charge, Levandowsi is left holding the blame and facing millions in fines, and many decades in jail.
Maybe being a jerk is illegal after all.