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Trade secrets: freedom of expression must be protected, say legal affairs MEPs

Plans to help businesses obtain legal redress against the theft or misuse of their trade secrets were backed by the legal affairs committee on Tuesday. The committee clarified the draft rules to ensure respect for freedom of expression and information, including media freedom, and provide adequate protection for whistle-blowers.

According to the European Commission, 25% of European companies reported at least one case of information theft in 2013 (up from 18% in 2012).

“Fighting against economic and industrial espionage, and giving companies the means to protect their know-how and professional information against any unlawful acquisition throughout Europe provides better protection for innovation, competitiveness and employment in Europe. At the same time, we have substantially amended and improved the initial text since it is all the more crucial to protect fundamental freedoms and guarantee the full exercise of freedom of expression and information, starting with media freedom and pluralism, but also to guarantee workers’ professional mobility,” said Constance Le Grip (EPP, FR), who is steering the legislation through Parliament.

The draft rules, approved by the legal affairs committee by 19 votes to 2, with 3 abstentions, aim to better protect EU businesses against the theft or misuse of trade secrets, such as specific technology, recipes or manufacturing processes, which in turn should boost confidence and increase incentives to innovate.

The proposed rules would introduce an EU-wide definition of trade secrets and oblige member states to adopt a range of tools to ensure that victims of trade secret misuse will be able to defend their rights in court and seek compensation.

Safeguarding freedom of expression and information

To ensure that the legislation does not restrict the work of journalists, in particular with regard to investigation, protecting their sources and the public right to be informed, legal affairs MEPs clarified and reinforced the provisions ensuring respect for freedom of expression and information and adequate protection for whistle-blowers.

Under the draft rules, as amended by the legal affairs committee, victims of trade secret theft or misuse will not have the right to redress if a trade secret was acquired, used or disclosed for the following purposes:

  • to make legitimate use, in accordance with the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, of the right to freedom of expression and information, including media freedom;
  • to reveal misconduct, wrongdoing, fraud or illegal activity, provided that the respondent acted in the public interest (such as public safety, consumer protection, public health or environmental protection);
    to protect “a general public interest or any other legitimate interest, recognized by Union or national law and through judicial practice”.

Finally, MEPs inserted a specific provision stressing that the legislation should not affect the freedom and pluralism of the media.

Transparency of the EU institutions and national public authorities

To ensure the transparency of the EU institutions and national public authorities, the committee inserted a clause providing that the rules do not affect the disclosure of business-related information by the EU institutions and national public authorities.
No unjustified barriers to workers’ mobility

The committee also amended the rules to ensure that they do not affect the use of information, knowledge, experience and skills honestly acquired by employees in the normal course of their previous employment. The new rules should not create any restrictions for employees seeking to change jobs, other than those included in their employment contract, MEPs say.

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