Trade secrets

March 26, 2022
 by Paul McGowan

Not that long ago there was a time when tradesmen guarded their secrets as a means of staying employed. If a tradesperson such as a welder, plumber, mechanic, cameraman, or perhaps a draftsperson was in possession of knowledge unavailable to others, their futures would be protected.

Or at least that was the theory back then.

That’s no longer the case. With the advent of YouTube and DIY websites, little to nothing is secret.

Yet the notion of protecting one’s intellectual property remains. Certainly within our industry.

Instead of working in an open-book environment where information like circuit topologies are shared, many of our fellow manufacturers still guard their closely held technological wonders. Think of all the potted modules and sealed boxes containing technological secrets. How many times have you opened a HiFi product only to see the numbers on the ICs wiped clean?

It makes sense (in a strange sort of way) to guard one’s treasures. I get it. I am certain you do as well. But perhaps it’s a bit shortsighted?

When ideas are freely shared there is growth for everyone.

Where do we draw the line between protectionism and forward motion?

Perhaps as a community, it might do us good to give some thought to the notion of being more open and sharing.

We at PS Audio are in.

Would others feel comfortable pulling back their kimonos just a bit?

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32 comments on “Trade secrets”

  1. This is a simple one. Look at amplifier designs. nCore have various patented Class D power and SMPS designs and they appear to have extracted value out of them totally brilliantly, as OEM units, bespoke designs and as the core of products by sister brands. Pierre-Emmanuel Calmel, on the other hand, invented and patented similar technology and created Devialet to monetise it. None of the power technology is licensed, but their SAM speaker technology is licensed extensively. Quad patented the current dumping amplifier, never licensed the technology, and have successfully made products with it for about 40 years.

    You create something, you find the best ways to monetise it, you don’t give it away.

  2. Paul,
    The obvious question is are we going to start seeing schematics of PS Audio products? As much as I would love to see schematics I’m not certain I’d publish them if I was in your position. You’d have to expect someone to start selling their own versions of your designs.


    1. The assumption you are operation under is that Paul is doing all the giving, but getting nothing in return. I have to think that as good as Paul is, he can always get better from the findings of others.

  3. How is this practiced, Paul?
    Do you publish your Airlens or BHK or DAC circuit and surrounding knowledge details somewhere and when? At release date or later? Where does the detail depth of knowledge shared begin and end for you? Or is it just that you don’t seal your circuits or wipe IC’s?

    I’m certainly aware of the information shared by Ted in the forum. Do you mean that?

      1. Interesting OHT. So we can’t see where the magic happens.
        Quoting from the words beneath the picture.

        “This method requires zero additional circuitry in the signal path, thus eliminating the need for additional circuitry that loses musical information.”

        I would assume this to be true for all such circuits and therefore providing a very strong case for keeping them as simple as possible. So now we’re back to pre-amp or no pre-amp and volume in the DAC. On the basis of the above surely no pre-amp would be recommended?

    1. Ok, couple of things to respond to here. First, over the years, we’ve also been guilty of trying to keep secret some of our technology. I don’t know any other company that hasn’t. The older, potted Gain Cells are a good example of that (as has been pointed out). I wasn’t suggesting we’re not in it as well.

      Even in the future we may well build a circuit into a module. Darren’t working on a new Super Cell analog stage that’s beyond exciting and we will likely make it into a plugin module. That said, we’re not doing that necessarily to hide the technology. In the case of a modern Gain Cell or the upcoming Super Cell it’s to make it an easy pluggable module and because it looks cooler than snot. 🙂 (that’s almost always me wanting it to look cool).

      The technology inside is not secret and we share with anyone interested what it is. No, we don’t give people the schematics and parts values, but we also don’t work to hide it. If someone wanted to reverse engineer our stuff they certainly could. I’ve openly discussed what’s inside of the Gain Cell and once the Super Cell is launched we’ll have plenty of discussions about the technology that makes it tick.

      Hope that helps.

      1. Thanks Paul! For me it would have been normal to hide intellectual property except for maybe some basic findings which can help others to base their future work on.

        Very generous of you to share more.

  4. Of course with China & Russia stealing tons of intellectual property from America &
    European countries every day, with absolutely no regard for international patent laws,
    the balance should be pretty-much be in their favour within the next 3-5 years.

    They say that, “Imitation is the highest form of flattery” & so the clock is now
    ticking to see how long it takes China HiFi to produce the SoundArtist – ‘XR30’
    floorstanding loudspeaker, with AMT tweeters & midrange drivers, four 8″
    bass drivers & four side-mounted 10″ ABR,s 😉

  5. I personally know a couple guys who have companies that make their own lines of audio equipment/speakers. My observation is that they are not artistic in a painters sense, but more a mosaic artist. By this I mean they are not creating everything from scratch, but taking “pieces” of technology/circuitry that perform certain functions and uniquely arrange them with artistic brilliance.

    When the subject of other companies comes up, the comments are more like “I like the way they did ‘x’”, or “I have tried “x” in the past and couldn’t make it work”. I have never heard anything from them regarding a desire to clone something. As an example, they may look at different power supply topologies and try something similar (but always with their own twist or tweak).

    That type of environment seems like it’s perfect for collaborative thinking, a “two heads are better than” one situation. I don’t know why you wouldn’t take advantage of the thoughts & findings of others.

  6. There is a phrase in computer security.
    “Security through obscurity”

    Safe— Only if searchers don’t go through your work. A bit like magicians.

    Real security is when it stays secret even if they know exactly what you do.

    1. “Real security is when it stays secret even if they know exactly what you do.”

      Very well spoken. We have some bits and pieces that we have sold since the late 80’s / early 90’s that are so simple as to be confusing. There have been many who asked the obvious questions and we always reply “it’s a company secret” or similar (neither admitting or denying the accuracy of their inquiry).

  7. I was watching a REL video the other day and they said that some of the components on the inside are encased in some material (I don’t know why I am thinking of amber but that may not be it) that would destroy the components if anyone tried to get at the pieces and parts to see what or how they are manufactured.

    Fat Rat had it correct in terms of “imitation ……”. Good morning by the way to all from Ohio, where I am spinning the new Suzanne Vega four-LP set of her re-recorded standards, just released yesterday. The desktop system is quite lacking however I need to get the basement finished so I can pull the big guys out again. Happy Listening everyone.

    1. Larry, It is true about REL. I recently had to send in the circuit board of my REL G1 for repair to REL Acoustics USA. They instructed me how to remove the board. When i got it out there was a sub-board attached to the main board that was covered with a black epoxy. It made it impossible to see what components were on the board and trying to remove the epoxy would destroy the components.

  8. patents provide incentives and protects those that make the effort; spend the time and money, to find solutions, and importantly advance the art

    they can choose to keep it, license it, and/or give it away

  9. Sounds great, in theory . In reality it would NEVER work. In today’s society , it’s a new norm. Profit from other people or peoples intellect.. We still live in a society of KNOWLEDGE IS POWER, and you CAN and Should charge for it.

    This is speaking about no life curing devices and not medicines.

    It did not come to you for free. More than likely blood sweat and years of research has been acquired by the time a career can be made out of this hobby.. There have been literally hundreds of great designs that never made it past a review.. Sometimes bad marketing, sometimes it was great but demand overdid supply

    Take your new speaker. Every speaker made has a crossover . There IS NO magical circuit. It’s either 1rst ,2nd,3rd, 4th… designs. It’s no mystery. Many designs have had planner mids and tweeters .
    What makes a great design is how it’s implemented and done. Many designers add several shaping circuits and impedance correcting shunts.. Its that personality that gives their speaker its own sound. A sound only the designer got and should be rewarded for. Dave Wilson was correct in potting his x overs. If he had not , the Watt/puppy would never have made him a wealthy man as the drivers were off the shelf units for a long time..

  10. Well, Paul, I suppose the big question is this … how would you feel if some obscure Chinese company announced next week a carbon copy of your new Aspen FR30 speakers, available to order on-line, for a third of your price?

    Your intellectual property comprises the sum total of everything it takes for you to design and manufacture your products, and sell them for a profit. It has value, and that value is worth protecting. How far you are prepared to go to protect that is each company’s own call to make.

  11. Paul, You are swimming up stream. In today’s tech heavy world knowledge has unprecedented value and is protected like gold. Having worked for 30 years in the hardware side of IBM and my wife working for 35 years on the software side of IBM I have seen the efforts they put into guarding their intellectual property ( IP ). They write patents so that they disclose everything except how to make the damn thing. They publish ideas that they think are not quite patent worthy, but they do not want anyone else to get a patent for that idea. On large projects underlings are only read-in on what they need to know to complete their part of the project. Leaders of large projects have PC’s with special security enhancements. Sensitive financial and technical information can only be communicated over special channels that are highly encrypted.

    Having an open tech space where ideas are freely exchanged – forgetaboutit!

  12. Those kimonos are there for a reason ! Let’s be reasonable. The metaphor relies on the Western myth of the geisha: a perfectly demure, subservient sex slave, who masks her physical attributes with a big baggy kimono. It is superficially salacious, then, to invoke the geisha in a business context.”

  13. I’m sure people like Bascomb H. king and Nelson Pass have trade secrets that they most likely may take to the grave.

    This post by Paul really depends on the individual because not every technological mastermind doesn’t believe sharing is caring. 😉

    Another side of it is business. To keep competitive some secrets must be applied and kept sacred.

  14. Kind of surprised that none of the talk has been about the mystique and power of ‘trade secrets’ often employed for marketing purposes. The ability to keep the perceptions as unique and differentiated as possible, Regardless of the openness or collaboration of designers.

    If something is designed that is totally unique and far ahead of the competition, then things will will be held close to the vest and protected for as long as possible.

    1. I think people resort to trade secrets when things cannot be patented or copyrighted. I do not know what kind of legal protect there is for food product recipes. Thus you often see things like “our secret BBQ sauce”.

      Like the case of REL mentioned above, I have been told that no one outside of the company has ever seen or photographed a Wilson Audio crossover, so I guess it is a trade secret.

      1. Tony,

        I think my point and yours boil down to the same thing. The idea being to create an impression or aura that something is so special it can’t be duplicated or improved upon by anyone.
        My contention being the ‘secret’ is most often used as a marketing ploy, not necessarily to hide the technology used.

        Or maybe cynicism should enter the picture and the question could then be asked…what is being hidden and why? 😀 ✌️

        1. I agree about “secret”. If something is truly being held a s a trade secret and someone asks about it the usual answer is that the information is proprietary, which isn’t a catchy as “secret”.

  15. Patents, like copyrights, eventually run out. I can’t wait for the patent on Elliquis to run out, so cheaper generic copies can become available.

    I recently researched copyrighting and learned that anyone can use the same exact book title as someone else’s existing book. Oddly, copyright law does not protect book titles. It can protect non-public domain photo images. Branding titles like “Harry Potter” can qualify for Trademarking for “Goods and Services” under certain conditions. If I wanted to publish a book entitled “The Audiophile’s Guide: The Stereo” I could legally do so, unless that title were trademarked.

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