The online coupon industry, led by companies such as Groupon Inc., is growing rapidly, and it’s still not clear which company or companies will end up the winners. With so much money potentially at stake, it’s not surprising that firms are going to court to battle over their trade secrets. On October 24, 2011, Groupon filed a lawsuit in Illinois state court in Chicago, accusing two former sales managers of taking confidential trade secrets with them when they left Groupon for Google Offers, a website that competes with Groupon. Google developed the competing website after Groupon rejected its $6 billion merger offer last year.
The two men, Michael Nolan and Brian Hanna, both left in September 2011 to join Google. “In their new positions with Google Offers and/or Google, Hanna and Nolan will provide the same or similar services as they provided at Groupon,” the complaint said. The two would “employ confidential and proprietary information that they learned while employed at Groupon,” according to the complaint.
Trade secrets generally consist of commercial information that (1) derives independent economic value from not being generally known to, and not being readily ascertainable by proper means by, other businesses which would benefit from its disclosure; and (2) is the subject of reasonable efforts by the business to be kept secret. As examples of the “confidential and proprietary information” that the two allegedly took with them to Google, the complaint cites Groupon’s deal history with merchants, the way in which Groupon structured such deals, the way in which Groupon identified merchants to participate in the deals, and Groupon’s in-house sales Wiki that provided information regarding Groupon’s sales practices and strategies.
Nolan and Hanna are likely to downplay the value of the information they took with them to Google. They might argue, for example, that it is not difficult or complex to learn how to target specific merchants or types of merchants with coupon deals, or that Google already has sufficient knowledge of online markets to figure out on its own how to target merchants.