Know-How and Trade Secrets

My current project is a history of the sharp spike in interest in concept of ‘know-how’ that occurred in the mid-twentieth century. Usage of the term, and interest in the concept of tacit knowledge as being fundamental to technology, shot up:

Around 1940-1950, the term ‘know-how’ became much, much more common in American English, then spread to British English, French, and German by the 1960s and 1970s. It was used to describe the tacit knowledge and hands-on experience that cannot be expressed in written form, yet is vitally important in communicating industrial science and technology effectively. As a result, sending abroad technical personnel with ‘know-how’ became central to American efforts at international development, and the US made efforts to bring even British and French businessmen to America to acquire American ‘know-how’ by the 1950s.

This project is at the intersection of legal history, intellectual history, the history of science/technology, and business history.

This is an international story, not just an American one. The term (‘das Know-how,’ ‘du know-how,’ ‘el know-how technico’) shot up in usage in German, French, Spanish, Russian, Japanese, and other languages in the 1950s to 1970s. European Economic Community (EEC) law recognizes know-how as a form of intellectual property, though the term has been pared away in US law by worry about antitrust implications of licensing know-how.

This project has a number of components:

  • Business and Legal Interest in Know-how – Know-how licenses took off in the postwar era, becoming more popular and more widely valued by international businesses than patent licenses. Yet the term’s nebulous definitions, so useful to businessmen who had come to appreciate that technology was more than what can be written down, clashed with a legal profession that wanted precise definitions in order to carve out intellectual property protection for it. Know-how became one of the most important commodities a business could own, and this remains true through the present.
  • Knowledge Management and Trade Secrets in Modern Business – Though the term ‘know-how’ has died off from common business usage, the importance of controlling workers’ tacit knowledge has only increased over time. In the 1990s, the same basic concerns that spawned the know-how phenomenon led to a new fad: “knowledge management.” Now explicitly drawing on the academic literature on tacit knowledge, KM became a hot topic, though seems to have had little or no awareness that these debates had all happened before. This chapter will trace business interest in KM and related ideas through the near-present. Closely related, yet discussed in very different terms, is the intellectual property right of “trade secrets.” This chapter will also discuss why these two closely-related concepts are now used in such different ways.
  • Know-how in Academic Philosophy – Starting with Gilbert Ryle, academic philosophers became very interested in the 1950s onward in questions of whether “know-how” is reducible to “know-that,” or vice versa. Michael Polanyi’s popularization of the term “tacit knowledge” in the 1960s brought that idea to the forefront of history and other social sciences. Yet the ties between this academic attention and the broader know-how phenomenon are unknown, and require further study.
  • Know-how in International Economic Development – President Truman advertised his major postwar economic development plan for ‘Third World’ nations as being based on of sending “technical missionaries” abroad, exporting America’s great “scientific and technical ‘know-how.'” This will be a history of the use of technical experts and technical expertise in development economics, and the connection between this idea of technology transfer and the failure of Modernization Theory to improve lives in these developing countries.
  • Immigration Law and the Flow of Human Knowledge – Fundamental to business interest in know-how is that technology lives, to some real degree, in humans, and cannot be passed along other than through hands-on demonstration. The United States and other countries revised their immigration policies in the mid-century to prioritize bringing in workers skilled in science and technology, away from a system based on race and family ties. This chapter will study how lawmakers involved in these changes understood science and technology, and how different nations’ political systems interacted with this immigration question.
  • Industrial Espionage – As a segue into my third book, which will be about the history of industrial espionage in the 20th century, this chapter will touch on how the spectre (and reality) of corporate spies shaped diplomacy, company policies, intellectual property law, and each of these other fields since World War II.