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cwr1a.jpgI have a couple of hobbies. Actually (as those close to me would tell you) I have an endless series of momentary obsessions. But a few have met the chronological challenge and persisted, so they’re hobbies. For one, I deal in antique woodworking tools. I also ride around on a bike. It’s a nice thing to do in Ithaca during the lighter months. Saturday, I was intent on both — a fellow up near Syracuse wanted to buy some planes and a set of auger bits, and I wanted to take a bike ride around Cazenovia, which is a pretty area, and fairly flat for this neck of the woods.

My tool customer was a guy named Sean Murphy, who works for (probably owns) a company called CWR Manufacturing in Syracuse. They make cold-formed parts for, well, pretty much anything. He mentioned automobiles, small electric appliances, casement windows, and electric motors among many other things. He is just getting into woodworking — and built his own dust collection system, whose cyclone chamber he welded up with a MIG welder, from plans he found on the Web. I am guessing he is a very good craftsman.

More to the point, he’s a happy, and habitual, LII user.

Sean uses us for information about employment law, intellectual property law, and as he said “the sort of thing that a guy in manufacturing needs to know to run a business”. I noticed that he didn’t blanch when I referred to the “CFR”. And he told me about how he had heard a lecture on intellectual property in a course he was taking (working toward an MBA), and started to wonder how he could use that to protect his company’s work product — none of which is patentable. As a result, he’s introduced the use of the non-disclosure agreement to his industry.

The large companies he deals with often do a kind of technology transfer — Sean’s crew is hired to produce a new part using cold-forming technology, and the company that hires them tries to learn as much as possible about what goes into the design and manufacture of the part. CWR does that for a couple of years, and then the client figures out how to use his own equipment and engineers to replicate the know-how that Sean’s crew has provided in designing and making the new part. Or the client passes the design and the knowledge on to another supplier who will make the part more cheaply, maybe offshore, leaving CWR behind. Not so good, that. After hearing the lecture, Sean consulted with the lawyer who had been brought in to give it — and as a result, now makes signing of an NDA a standard part of his arrangement with new customers. Big deal, sez you — everyone in the software industry signs five NDAs before lunch. That’s right — and now everyone in manufacturing will too, and the situation for small shops like Sean’s will improve as a result, because the client will no longer be able to walk away with CWR’s real work product: the know-how involved in re-engineering the part for cold-forming manufacture.

I get two very warm and fuzzy things from this: first, another anecdote to add to the many that tell us that the audience for legal information goes way, way beyond lawyers, and second, an indication that maybe what Richard Susskind said about a more transparent legal information regime increasing, rather than decreasing, the need for legal services is proving itself. If — as we’ve long thought here — more accessible legal information means that people are less apprehensive about approaching the legal system (or feel better prepared when they do), then more people like Sean will do so. And the result will be an increase in the use of legal services in a preventive way. Nothing new about that, of course — but I’d like to think the numbers are going up as legal information gets more and more available.

These days, if you say something is “like a legal version of WebMD” , people are inclined to think in terms of consumer law, bankruptcy, divorce. But it’s also about small business, entrepreneurship, and a healthy economy. That is, if you’re like Sean.

And he’s a good businessman — I know because he wouldn’t pay my ridiculous prices for a #8 jointer plane and a set of auger bits.

One Response to “The LII and cold-forming”

  1. Tom’s description of the challenges faced when protecting our technology and preventing the almost inevitable “transfer” was spot on. Developing an understanding of what is legally possible or defensible is difficult if you are not a lawyer. It is equally challenging to describe the desired parameters to lawyers who do not have any understanding of my business. Use of a resource such as the LII can provide some understanding of the law, but it is still information written by and for lawyers, framed in legal terms. For those of you who are wood workers, it is a lot like trying to plane a small hollow out of a large panel with that jointer plane I am looking for – you will have to go through a lot of material to get there. Count my vote in favor of improved transparency.

    As Tom points out, the use of non-disclosure agreements has a beneficial effect: it provides a good preliminary understanding between parties. However, the effectiveness of the agreement goes only as far as the ethics of the larger party. The resources required to enforce the agreement in today’s legal industry is prohibitive for a small business. Not to mention the collateral costs associated with being the plaintiff (read: aggressor) in such an action.

    I would say that leading folks to believe that I “introduced the use of the non-disclosure agreement to [my] industry” would be giving me just a little too much credit. It would be accurate to say that I introduced it to my business and would love to see others do the same – if only the small manufacturing masses would follow that siren’s call. While it can get you dashed on the proverbial rocks with a prospective customer, the net effect of using the NDA as a business tool will ultimately provide safer waters for all of us. It will also raise awareness that the specialized knowledge gained as a manufacturer is hard won, has value and is worth protecting. Not to mention compensation.

    By the way, I am still looking for that Stanley #8 jointer plane with the frog adjusting screw if anyone is interested in an “old technology” transfer.

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