The Ethicist, our favorite Sunday New York Times Magazine columnist, recently explored this conundrum faced by “B.C.” of New Jersey:
On a recent flight, my colleague was seated next to an employee of our major competitor. My colleague realized this when the fellow began writing e-mails about possible problems with a significant new product. Is it ethical for us to capitalize on this fellow’s stupidity?
On the morality front, the views of The Ethicist, Ariel Kaminer, were clear. For example, reading your sister’s unlocked diary is a no-no, but reading information about your business competitor’s plans, if left out in the open, is perfectly fine. So if your airplane neighbor is careless enough to work on sensitive information in the close confines of an airplane, then you, the lucky competitor nearby, may profit from his carelessness guilt-free.
With regard to the law, things are a bit more complicated; those words on the passenger’s computer screen could contain a trade secret and therefore be legally protected. Ms. Kaminer wasn’t sure if seeing and then disseminating that secret would land B.C. in hot legal water, so she sought the guidance of an intellectual property attorney.
The verdict: if the information is left out in the open, it’s no longer a secret, trade or otherwise.
But it’s not always this obvious. How out in the open does something need to be in order to lose trade secret status? Is a secret still a secret if someone can eavesdrop via high-tech hearing aid or peer through your bedroom window with binoculars? LASIS took the bait and investigated. (more…)