Know-How in Postwar Business and Law
Abstract

In the mid-twentieth century, businesses around the world began to see technical know-how as one of the most important assets they could possess. While their exact definitions of know-how varied (usually centering on employees’ tacit knowledge; accumulated, minor innovations rather than just patentable inventions; and tailoring to local conditions), the rapidly growing perception that it was invaluable led to widespread know-how licensing. As businesses embraced it, legal scholars and business lawyers during the 1950s through the 1970s scrambled to clarify legal bases for intellectual property protections for know-how. In the 1970s Supreme Court decisions undermined this effort, and a consortium of legal organizations turned instead to lobbying for statutory protection for the related, narrower category of “trade secrets.” Despite the rise and relative decline of know-how in American business and law, interest in the term spread to other languages and legal systems, and the repercussions of these shifting understandings of technology transfer remain with us today.


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