Zynga Files Suit Against Former Staffer, Claiming Theft of Trade Secrets

Following the departure of several high-level employees, Zynga is striking back by filing a lawsuit against one of its former general managers, alleging “the wholesale theft of some of its most sensitive and commercially valuable data.”

The complaint was filed in Superior Court in San Francisco on Friday against Alan Patmore, for misappropriation of trade secrets and breach of written contract.

A Zynga spokesperson declined to comment, and Patmore did not immediately return emails seeking comment. The legal proceedings, including the complaint, are embedded below.

Back in August, Patmore, Zynga’s general manager of CityVille, left the company to work at a rival social games maker in San Francisco. Patmore had joined Zynga in June 2011, and served as CityVille’s general manager before jumping to Kixeye to be its VP of Product. Kixeye is a much smaller Facebook games developer that has been extremely brazen about recruiting talent away from Zynga.

In the filing, Zynga claims that Patmore amassed 760 documents from his work computer, and backed them up online before his last day. Further, Zynga claims in the complaint that the data is important enough that it could be used to “improve a competitor’s internal understanding and know-how of core game mechanics and monetization techniques, its execution and ultimately its market standing to compete more effectively with Zynga.”

Zynga says Patmore took files that are critically important to the game maker’s business, including revenue projections, monetization plans, more than 10 unreleased game design documents, employee compensation details, strategic road maps, and his entire email box, containing 14 months of confidential communications. “In short, Patmore copied virtually every email he received or sent while he was a GM at Zynga,” the complaint reads.

Zynga appeared in court on Friday, seeking a temporary restraining order. A judge granted the request, barring Patmore from using or disclosing the data to anyone, or from copying the information, or engaging in any activities related to developing online game applications that use Zynga’s trade secrets.

This is the second time that Zynga has filed a lawsuit of this kind. In 2009, Zynga alleged that four former employees stole trade secrets and used that information against it after joining Disney’s Playdom. Terms of the settlement between the two companies were not disclosed. Zynga will return to court on Tuesday, where it will ask the judge to address its other requests, including the return of the data, access to Patmore’s Dropbox account, and other details.

The timing of the data breach, if it turns out to be as bad as the lawsuit suggests, could not be worse, as the company is struggling to maintain its dominance in the sector. The lawsuit could also serve as a reminder to any other employees, who are thinking about leaving the company, especially as Zynga suffers from a major brain drain.

Update: We just got a comment from a Kixeye spokesperson. Here it is in full:

“Kixeye has nothing to do with the suit. Unfortunately, this appears to be Zynga’s new employee retention strategy: Suing former employees to scare current employees into staying. They’ve clearly exhausted other options in their employee retention playbook.”

Here are the documents:

Zynga vs. Patmore

Zynga Order Granting Ex Parte

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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik