America’s weirdest trade secret theft cases

Popcorn, Hooters, Crocs — even the nichest of niche businesses must go to battle to defend their trade secrets.


April 25, 2019

Most of the trade secret theft cases we read about relate to high-profile tech suits: Uber stealing from Waymo, Apple screwing over Qualcomm, or Huawei pilfering T-Mobile.

But here’s a new one: As the Chicago Tribune reports, popcorn maker CaramelCrisp has filed a federal suit claiming that one of its ex-employees heisted 5k top-secret files that “[put] its secret recipes at risk.”

It’s a reminder that even the nichest of niche businesses must go to battle to defend their trade secrets.

What is a trade secret, anyway?

In sweeping terms, a trade secret is any information (be it a “formula, pattern, compilation, program, device, method, technique, or process”) that gives a company a competitive edge, and derives financial value from not being known to the public.

The classic example is Coca-Cola’s secret recipe, which is known to only 2 living people and is supposedly locked in a multimillion-dollar vault

But popcorn companies have trade secrets too

According to CaramelCrisp (more commonly known as Garrett Popcorn), its popcorn recipes were available to only 3 employees, each of whom had to verify her identity with a biometric thumbprint for access.

Allegedly, one of these 3, former employee Aisha Putnam, got her salty little hands on “information about recipes, batch pricing, product weights, [and] production processes,” and shared them via email with competitors — an offense that can come with hefty restitution fees and jail time.

It gets weirder

Believe it or not, a popcorn trade secret doesn’t even crack the list of strangest trade secret theft allegations we’ve read about:

  • Walter Liew stole trade secrets from DuPont relating to the production of the chemical titanium dioxide (used to make the cream in Oreo cookies brilliant white). He was caught and is currently serving a 15-year prison sentence.
  • A Hooters competitor allegedly stole “a blueprint used to recruit and retain” Hooters Girls.
  • A Columbia Sportswear employee shared trade secrets (including  blueprints for a pair of “Electro clogs”) with universally hated footwear purveyor, Crocs.

As they say, the greatest secrets are usually hidden in the most unlikely places.

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