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The Death of Trade Secrets

(January 2009) posted on Fri Jan 09, 2009

To survive the changing business environment and contend with technological upheavals, printing businesses must assess and promote the value of what they do rather than simply focus on product and process.

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By Mark A. Coudray

I’ve long been fascinated with exponential expansions of information and incredible rates of growth. I’ve had an opportunity over the past few months to look at these subjects, which I discussed in the September 2008 edition of Screen Printing, much more closely and consider the implications they have for garment and graphics screen printers, as well as digital printers. The speed at which knowledge expands changes everything we know about past practices and about how we run our businesses. But this isn’t unique to us. Other industries and segments are facing even greater and more radical disruptions.

Observation of the phenomenon of exponential knowledge expansion—and the dilemma exponential knowledge growth poses—has been documented in scientific papers as far back as 1981. We, of course, have been too focused on the disruptive technologies in our industry and how they’ve affected our lives to have noticed. I would like to look closely at what this means to us from the familiar perspective of learning a craft or trade, and then guarding that knowledge as a protected trade secret. I chose this perspective because our industry is notorious for harboring such a condition.


Craftsman-guild model

When knowledge was difficult to obtain and books were nonexistent, the trades and crafts protected their value by keeping their methods secret and passing knowledge by word of mouth. This is where the term trade secret originated. While the term most likely comes from Western Europe in the 1300-1400s, the first evidence of trade guilds goes back as far as the Dark Ages, around 800 AD. More importantly, knowledge was very rare and if you had it, you protected it and did not share it for risk of losing your advantage. If you were the only one who had it, you would have value and you would always have work.

This approach to knowledge was based on scarcity. During this period it was indeed possible to learn every recorded piece of knowledge—a situation common among scholars and monks. Knowledge was scarce and often held in higher esteem than gold.


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