The concept of a "head-start" injunction is well-established in unfair competition law. The idea of it is rather simple. In a case involving trade secrets misappropriation, a defendant may be enjoined - or prevented from using the secret - if the plaintiff can show the defendant's efforts to bring a product or service to market were substantially shortened as a result of the misappropriation.
We often see this in cases where the secret is some sort of tool used to develop a product. Take, for instance, an engineering drawing for a complex piece of equipment. A defendant who has misappropriated a proprietary drawing may try to claim he could easily reverse-engineer the drawing from the product itself. However, this may take a long time, depending of course on the complexity of the product. By short-circuiting the process and stealing a drawing, a defendant can reduce his time to market a competing product.
A plaintiff is justified in seeking relief for this head-start the defendant unfairly obtained through misappropriation of the secret product. Courts often will require a defendant to refrain from exploiting the benefits of a secret for a period commensurate with the unfair head-start.
The notion of head-start relief, however, is not limited to equitable relief. As a recent Ohio appellate decision noted, "a trade secret defendant's damages may be limited to the time the defendant saved in getting a product to market by virtue of its misappropriation." The amount of damages will be a factual question. A judge or jury must determine the actual lead-time or head-start the defendant unfairly obtained, a question often requiring detailed fact and expert testimony.
It should be noted, too, that the head-start concept applies outside the trade secrets arena. It is a very common remedy in cases of insider duty of loyalty claims. If a key employee competes unfairly before quitting and seeks to misappropriate a corporate opportunity, courts are more than willing to force the executive to sit on the sidelines for a time equal to his period of disloyalty. In this context, calculating the head-start may be much easier. Rather than figuring out how long the reverse-engineering process might be (as in a trade secrets case), a plaintiff likely need only show when a key emloyee's fiduciary breach began.
Court: Court of Appeals of Ohio, Eighth Appellate District
Opinion Date: 10/21/10
Cite: Berard's Fresh Roast, Inc. v. PMD Enterprises, Inc., 2010 Ohio App. LEXIS 4314 (Ohio Ct. App. Oct. 21, 2010)