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In the intangible world of intellectual property, it is often easy to overlook the possible criminal penalties associated with trade secret theft. Yu Qin, a former electrical engineer for General Motors Corp. (GM), learned about such ramifications last month when he was sentenced to three years in prison for copying thousands of confidential GM documents pertaining to the automaker’s hybrid cars. (U.S. v. Qin et al., 2:10-cr-20454, in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan). The documents that Qin stole are estimated to be worth more than $40 million.

According to court records, Qin conspired to steal the valuable documents from GM with his wife for the benefit of their own independent company, Millennium Technology International, Inc. Qin’s wife, Du, also worked at GM in the automaker’s Advanced Technology Ventures Group. Although the couple initially stole documents to benefit their own company, court records show that the couple also ended up giving documents about GM’s technology to Chery Automobile, a Chinese-based automaker and competitor of GM’s. According to authorities, the confidential GM information was stolen between 2003 and 2006.

As Qin’s story indicates, trade secret theft can constitute a crime with very real penalties.

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