Back when I learned about this stuff, companies basically had two options to protect their technology: patents and trade secrets.
- If you file for a patent, the theory is that you tell the whole world how it works, but get the exclusive right to produce it yourself, or license it to others. Yes, the patent system has problems, but that's theory. This is supposed to help technology advance, because you can build on other people's work.
- If you go with a trade secret (think: the secret recipe for Coca Cola), that means that you don't want to publish the information, so you receive no protection from the government. Protecting the secret is up to you; if someone steals it, that's your problem. This lack of protection is deliberate, providing motivation for filing patents and publishing information.
What I didn't know is that in 1996, the government passed the Economic Espionage Act. This essentially grants government protection to trade secrets, not only by criminalizing their theft (but that is likely a criminal act anyway), but also by criminalizing the use of the trade secrets by another company.
Of course, the act also explicitly exempts the government; the government can spy on you as much as it wants.
The act also funds the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. You've gotta admire the US Congress - they never miss an opportunity to include pork.