The Big List


ON INVENTORS' SECRECY           Feb 1996 William Beaty

The inventors of the personal computer published detailed construction plans for their "Altair" home computer in 1976, in Popular Electronics magazine. And over the years there have been large numbers of build-it articles published in many electronics magazines, articles with detailed construction info for very advanced devices, as well as many thousands of lesser devices. How can people do this? Are they totally insane? Won't their competitors steal all their work?

It's usually useless to patent an electronic product, so protection of the ideas involve secrecy rather than patent protection. Patents on circuitry are hard to defend sucessfully, so the main protection a company can use is unmarked chips, unreadable EPROMs, board encapsulation, and other methods for preserving the trade secrets. This being the case, why would anyone EVER publish full construction information in a magazine? Doesn't it totally wreck the secrecy needed to stay in business?

The answer is; SECRECY IS NOT NEEDED FOR SUCCESS. The construction plans constitute powerful free advertizing. They also give considerable protection for designs. If everyone knows your design, then everyone will notice when someone starts making illegal copies of your products. Those who want to steal ideas would rather NOT do it blatantly in front of the whole world. A published article confers some copyright protection. Also, there's protection gained from the psychology involving, "if they're giving it away free, it must not be worth anything."

The secrecy vs. publicity argument has an analogy in cooking. Should a master chef keep all his/her techniques secret? E.g. carefully regulate who is allowed to learn secrets, only teach acolytes, start a "school," etc? That's one way to proceed. But why not instead make the whole world a better place, and publish a cookbook? The presence of a cookbook converts all your sneaky competitors into unskilled copycats in the eyes of the public. To who will the big customers go when high-end consulting is needed? Not to the competition! And a cookbook lets small customers do it themselves, which tends to wreck the business of any unskilled , small competitors who survive by theft. And finally, it's impossible to really teach everything via a cookbook. The same is true in many other fields, so releasing the secrets is not incompatible with running a restaurant, or being a sucessful inventor.

The inventors of the Altair home computer founded the PC revolution. They could have carefully kept their device a complete secret, and sold it as a sealed "black box", or perhaps sold it to a large company at the outset. But had they done so, wouldn't the world be a very different place today?

Access to computers should be unlimited and total.

Always yield to the Hands-On Imperative

All information should be free.

Mistrust authority--promote decentralization.

Also see:

George Wiseman's NO PATENT page


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