Commercial satellite imagery: CI, KM, and trade secret law

DOIhttps://doi.org/10.1108/03055720710759964
Publication Date26 Jun 2007
Pages192-206
AuthorCynthia M. Gayton
SubjectInformation & knowledge management
Commercial satellite imagery:
CI, KM, and trade secret law
Cynthia M. Gayton
School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, The George Washington
University, Washington, District of Columbia, USA
Abstract
Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to examine the implications of remote surveillance or satellite
imagery as they relate to trade secret law, knowledge management, and competitive intelligence.
Design/methodology/approach – The paper approaches legal issues from the perspective of a
trade secret holder.
Findings While conducting research for this paper, it was found that, while technological
improvements relating to satellite imagery and remote sensing are increasingly more precise and
ubiquitous, the laws protecting businesses that have an interest in protecting trade secrets are
inconsistent. On the one hand, the US Government has given itself a powerful tool to protect trade
secrets under the Economic Espionage Act. On the other hand, the Government has granted remote
satellite companies licences under which they may sell satellite images to industrial competitors,
consequently thwarting trade secret protection efforts
Originality/value Trade secrets represent a valuable contribution to a nation’s economy,
particularly when some interventions do not meet the requirements necessary for more traditional
intellectual property regime protection (e.g. copyright, trade mark, patents). A trade secret’s value lies
in it remaining hidden. There are few cases addressing trade secrets and satellite imagery. The
stalwart case, E.I. duPont deNemours & Co., Inc. v. Rolfe Christopher, represents a tentative foray into
the subject, but only suggests the rights a trade secret holder may have when a commercial satellite
company collects otherwise innocuous data and sells those to a competitor. A proper plaintiff to test
the boundaries surrounding trade secret law, satellite imagery, and competitive intelligence remains at
large.
Keywords Law, Artificialsatellites, Surveillance, Knowledgemanagement, Trade secrets
Paper type Conceptual paper
This is a case of industrial espionage in which an airplane is the cloak and a camera the
dagger (Judge Goldberg, E.I. duPont deNemours & Co., Inc. v. Rolfe Christopher).
The impetus for this article was a question posed from one of my students as I breezed
through the intellectual property portion of my engineering law course. When we got to
trade secrets, I briefly described an old chestnut of a case, E.I. duPont deNemours &
Co., Inc. v. Rolfe Christopher, to outline the reasonable efforts necessary to maintain the
confidential nature of a trade secret. In the case, photographers in a plane flew above
duPont’s Beaumont, Texas, plant, took photos and sold them to an unknown third
party. The photographers, not their undisclosed client, were sued. The court found the
photographers guilty of misappropriation of trade secrets. One student, upon hearing
this conclusion, was particularly concerned about how the case would apply to a
company that provided satellite images of sensitive sites. Specifically, if a company in
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at
www.emeraldinsight.com/0305-5728.htm
VINE
37,2
192
VINE: The journal of information and
knowledge management systems
Vol. 37 No. 2, 2007
pp. 192-206
qEmerald Group Publishing Limited
0305-5728
DOI 10.1108/03055720710759964

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