The recipe for Coca-Cola® is one of the most valuable trade secrets in the world. As a trade secret, it is not protected by patent, copyright, trademark or any other government-granted monopoly. The recipe is a trade secret only because The Coca-Cola Company keeps the information secret.
According to the radio show ‘This American Life,’ the cola cat is out of the bag. According to the show’s producers, a photograph of the original 1886 recipe appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1979 and is fully legible. Does publication of this 125 year old recipe destroy The Coca-Cola Company’s trade secret?
Hmm. John S. Pemberton, who invented Coca-Cola®, was a wounded Confederate veteran, pharmacist and morphine addict. After the Civil War, Pemberton sold an alcoholic product that included caffeine and cocaine as a medication for, among other things, morphine addiction. He changed the recipe in 1886 to remove the alcohol in response to temperance laws and changed the name to “Coca-Cola®.” Pemberton sold his rights and died in 1888. The cocaine was gone from the recipe by 1903, but the caffeine remains.
So what about the secret recipe for Coca-Cola?
In general, a trade secret is entitled to protection in the courts only so long as the owner of the trade secret takes reasonable precautions to keep the information secret. If someone else acquires the information, then that person is free to use the information, so long as the person did not acquire the information through improper means, as a result of a breach of confidence, or as the result of a mistake. For example, stealing the recipe would be improper means . Acquiring the recipe by hiring a Coca-Cola Company executive who knows the trade secrets would be a breach of confidence.
The Coca-Cola Company has made no allegation that the original 125 year old recipe was stolen or acquired by anything other than proper means. The old recipe is not subject to trade secret protection and may be copied freely- just don’t expect to mix up a modern Coke®. The modern recipe is still a trade secret.
— Robert J. Yarbrough, Esq.