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It is well recognized that a trade secret does not offer protection against discovery by fair and honest means such as by independent invention, accidental disclosure or by so-called reverse engineering, that is, starting with the known product and working backward to divine the process.
Appellant locksmiths and publishers of specialized trade books challenged an adverse judgment in an action by appellee lock manufacturer alleging federal and state claims of trademark infringement and unfair competition. As an aid for fellow locksmiths, appellants published a compilation of tubular lock key codes that individual locksmiths transmitted to them after they had deciphered the codes in the course of their work. Appellants argued the district court erred in concluding the codes for appellee's tubular locks were improperly acquired trade secrets, and in enjoining distribution of appellants' compilations.
Could the appellee’s tubular locks be considered as improperly acquired trade secrets?
The court reversed and remanded the judgment on the grounds that the codes for appellee's tubular locks were not improperly acquired trade secrets. According to the court, a lock purchaser's own reverse-engineering of his lock and subsequent publication of the code was an example of independent invention and reverse engineering that was expressly allowed by trade secret doctrine. Moreover, the court held that appellants could not have procured the individual locksmiths to breach a duty of nondisclosure, since the locksmiths owed no such duty to appellee.