“Know-go” – negative know-how that can be protected as a trade secret is among IP’s most overlooked assets

Thomas Edison famously said: “I have not failed. I have just found ten thousand ways that won’t work.”

After hundreds of experiments with different materials for a long-lasting light bulb filament, Edison, as much as businessman as an innovator, zeroed in on carbonized thread.

“At that point,” says James Pooley, author of SECRETS: Managing Information Assets in the Age of Cyberespionage, “Edison had two trade secrets: first, the identity of the best material. And, second, the identity of the materials he had tried.”

Negative Know-How

A business’ lack of success, a matter of specialized know-how more aptly called “know-go,” is protected under trade secret law because it is valuable not only to it but to a competitor who wishes to catch-up without spending as much time and money.

Know-how, sometimes known as show-how, is the “secret sauce” that can give an otherwise mundane invention meaning. But the value of negative experience — of what not to do; of repeated failures and near successes — should not be under estimated.

The Intangible Investor in the December IAM magazine looks at “Failure – IP’s most underrated asset.” The full piece can be found here.

Costly Mistakes

A popular television series, “What Not to Wear,” has run for 345 episodes over ten years. The show advises women and men about how to spare themselves the cost, time and embarrassment of fashion faux pas. The value, the show’s loyal followers reason, is not only in identifying the right clothes choices, but in avoiding the more costly mistakes.

Information, data or experience that spares businesses time, cost and potential embarrassment is an asset, often an invaluable one, especially to large, risk-adverse businesses where R&D is at a premium.

Know-go is also attractive to potential acquirers who need to know how far towards a solution a target may have progressed.

Closely related to the concept of negative information is the idea that you can be guilty of trade secret theft (“indirect misappropriation”) even though your product looks very different, or significant investments have been made in your own research.

“Intangible assets of this nature that serve to avoid failure,” says Pooley, former Deputy Director of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), “can be more valuable than knowledge that enables success.”

Image source: rundlesafety.co.za; wikipedia.org;

About Bruce Berman

Independent IP observer, adviser and author.

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