Advertising versus trade secret protection: Blackberry CEO’s latest blog raises questions about the company’s legal strategy

In a March 26, 2014 blog post, Blackberry CEO John Chen addressed the issue of recent leaks to a forthcoming edition of the Blackberry Smartphone.  Chen announced to Blackberry customers and the general public that the company is “pursuing legal action” against a party who allegedly illegally obtained the information and made it public.  While Chen did not provide any further detail regarding what legal action was taken, Blackberry may pursue criminal and trade secret infringement charges.

The party charged allegedly posed as an employee of another cellphone carrier in order to gain access to Blackberry’s secured networks.  The leak may refer to a new operating system (10.3.0.140) for the Blackberry Z10, leaked to the public earlier this week.  Some websites made the OS available for download.  Others simply showed a screenshot of the homescreen, containing an icon for a new program called “Intelligent Assistant.”  The leak may also refer to a larger, tablet-like phone called the Ontario, mentioned on the Crackberry.com online forum.

Blackberry’s statement that it will take legal action raises an important question of the balance between adequately protecting trade secrets and adequately marketing a product.

Blackberry’s statement that it will take legal action raises an important question of the balance between adequately protecting trade secrets and adequately marketing a product.  The leak represents a double-edged sword of consumer interest for companies attempting to protect their trade secrets.  The seriousness of the leak depends on how much information was released.  If the entire specifications of a new phone or OS were released, then another manufacturer could illegally produce Blackberry’s product.  Patent and trade secret laws are in place in the US to protect companies from the effects of others inappropriately gaining access to their proprietary information.

On the other hand, high levels of consumer interest and curiosity drum up conversations about the next Blackberry on tech blogs and other websites.  The leak could encourage technologically savvy consumers to purchase the real product when Blackberry releases it.  Some tech bloggers have criticized Blackberry for cracking down on a leaker who drummed up more consumer traffic for Blackberry, claiming that the leaker was “a natural part of the gadget and mobile device ecosystem, and an expression of genuine interest from people who might actually want to purchase [the] products.”

According to Chen, this leak is an instance of “curiosity turn[ing] to criminality.”  For Blackberry’s CEO and Blackberry’s attorneys, the leak has clearly crossed the line from adequate publicity into trade secret infringement.  However, some consumer blogs are predicting that the leak includes only images of the new operating system and some users who have tried it.  Users who have tried the new OS have raved about it on the internet; some bloggers argue that Blackberry “couldn’t ask for a better cheerleader for the brand.”  Chen stated that Blackberry will release less blogs and information about upcoming products, which may “ha[ve] no downsides for anyone but BlackBerry itself.”

Blackberry’s legal strategy to adamantly protect its interests is demonstrated in other high-profile lawsuits in which the company is involved.  The company recently wrapped up a judgment against its vice president in charge of software, Sebastian Marineau.  An Ontario, Canada court ruled that Blackberry is entitled to costs for Mr. Marineau violating his contract when he decided to accept a position at Apple.  Blackberry appears to be taking a conservative view of its company in regards to its legal dealings (attempting to retain talent and retain trade secrets as opposed to embracing natural turnover and embracing the modern advertising benefits of online leaks).  It remains to be seen whether this legal strategy will yield higher stock prices for the company.