The Plot to Steal the Colour White
You may be wondering what this is all about. How can someone steal a color? Throughout 1997 and 2011, a spy named Walter Liew conspired to steal DuPont’s formula for producing what is called “titanium white”. This led to a long legal battle to convict the spy of economic espionage and theft along with his conspirators.
Chemists at DuPont perfected their process for producing a superior form of white pigment widely referred to as Titanium White. The breakthrough was introduced in the 1940s and has since then turned into a $2.6 billion empire. Titanium white is used as a cosmetic pigment, in the production of plastic items and even whiten the lines of chalk on a tennis court.
There are multiple other companies that produce Titanium white. In 2016, these other companies churned out over 5 million tons of titanium white powder. China is not an exception, having produced around a quarter of the world supply of the pigment. However, China’s processes of producing the pigment were questionable at best.
This led the Chinese government and public businesses to start looking for ways to adapt DuPont’s process for producing the all-coveted titanium white pigment. According to U.S law enforcement officials, the Chinese set out to rip off DuPont in the 1990s by not approaching them to formally offer a deal in exchange for their process.
John Carlin—assistant attorney general of the U.S Department of Justice national security office, classifies the case as worse than spying. He calls the act of stealing DuPont’s formula for titanium white an act of theft. He states that although the formula is not a national security secret, he sees the act as a strategy to profit out of the ingenuity of Americans.
Despite DuPont’s extensive security procedures to safeguard its titanium white process, the process was smuggled from the company throughout 1997 and 2011. The spy: Walter Liew, who was an American citizen by naturalization, businessman and worked as a technology consultant.
Liew has been found guilty of stealing the protocols for DuPont’s titanium white process along with a blueprint of a factory which he used to win contracts collectively worth nearly $30 million.
Liew’s acquaintances shared their testimonies for trial and the United States law enforcement interviews that Liew was a successful individual who felt he could still be more successful. They further shared that Liew was charming and is easily able to exploit someone’s weaknesses. Liew was also found to be a compulsive diarist which allowed the court to use the evidence he wrote on notes and reports for himself against Liew.
Liew established ties in the mid-’90s with the Chinese. This led landed him a contract designing an acrylic resin plant in Zhouzhou. His project was a success with the construction of the plant and as his work was dimming, he turned to the production of titanium white.
Although it is unclear for officials why he turned to titanium white production, the authorities can only speculate that Liew took advantage of the fact that he would get paid more steadily in the titanium white industry. This can be attuned to the fact that the titanium white industry was facing a huge demand. Liew most likely knew that Chinese corporations were looking for ways to adapt DuPont’s processes for titanium white and jumped on the chance to make a long-term payday.
Executives of a steel company in Chengde met with Liew and two American associates in 1997 seeking to build a plant that produced titanium white pigment. Despite Liew’s limited knowledge of the substance and the processes involving the production of the pigment, he felt confident that he would be able to navigate a session of introductory niceties.
Ultimately, Liew and his associates were shocked to find fifty company engineers who peppered them with questions regarding the production of titanium white and their knowledge about it. Humiliated, Liew and his associates returned to the United States and began their search for an inside look into DuPont’s process.
The search led them to Tim Spitler, a former engineer for DuPont who lived in Reno, Nevada. Liew was successful in manipulating Spitler into handing him information regarding DuPont’s processes. Spitler even shares that Liew paid him $15,000 for documents related to DuPont which included a blueprint to a Delaware plant.
Due to Spitler’s warnings that a plant would not be very successful in the absence of professionals in the matter, Liew continued his search for former DuPont employees who shared Spitler's bitter views.
His search led him to Robert Maegerle, a former DuPont mechanical engineer who had specialized in the production of titanium white. Maegerle expressed his frustrations on DuPont’s business choices sharing that he was disappointed with the company for abandoning a project in South Korea wherein he was a top engineer.
Not long after, Maegerle started consulting Liew which accelerated his work. Liew’s persistence and perseverance landed him a contract in May 2009 worth $17.8 million to design a large titanium white plant in Chongqing.
In July 2011, Liew’s home and offices in California, as well as Maegerl’s office, were raided by the FBI. This led to Liew and his accomplices’ downfall. Due to the amount of evidence gathered by the government, Liew was convicted in 2014 and has since begun serving a 15-year prison sentence.
The Liew case has since then been considered a watershed of Beijing’s persistent pursuit to rip off United States intellectual property. In response, defendants of Liew accuse the United States authorities of targeting a hardworking and resourceful entrepreneur to protect DuPont’s best interests. They further allege that DuPont was more of an aggressor and less of a victim. DuPont allegedly recruited the law enforcement to stifle their Chinese competition.