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What's a Trade Secret? (And What Would Happen if You Stole The Colonel's?)

Earlier this week, KFC removed Colonel Harland Sanders' original handwritten recipe of 11 herbs and spices that go into the company's signature fried chicken from its safe storage place. The 68-year-old recipe had been resting in a locked filing cabinet inside a vault at the company's Louisville headquarters, and it was only removed under the watchful eyes of many guards so the company could upgrade the security around the piece of paper. Why all the fuss? Are these measures just publicity-seeking theatrics for KFC? Why does KFC need to keep the recipe under lock and key anyway?

The KFC recipe is part of a larger class of corporate knowledge known as trade secrets. Broadly defined, a trade secret is a process (think of things like Web search algorithms), formula, practice, design, or other secret information to which the public doesn't have access that allows a company to gain a competitive advantage over the rest of its industry. In this case, KFC feels that its spice blend enables the company to make particularly delicious chicken that's differentiated from the rest of the fried-chicken market. The public seems to agree; KFC raked in over $5 billion in domestic sales last year. If another chicken company got their hands on this spice blend, they could conceivably replicate the delicious fried poultry and effectively eat away at KFC's market share. As such, KFC maintains its recipe as a trade secret to keep competitors at bay.

If KFC wants to protect its recipe, why doesn't it just get a patent?

Because then the cat would be out of the bag on what the 11 spices are. In order to acquire a patent, a company has to give pretty exhaustive information on what it's patenting to the United States Patent and Trademark Office. If the office granted a patent, the information would then become public. Although KFC would have a temporary monopoly (usually for 20 years) on that particular recipe, every chicken shack owner in the country could start toying with the recipe, making little tweaks to it, and potentially coming up with something even better. None of that would be good for the Colonel. But by keeping the recipe a closely guarded secret, the company can theoretically keep its advantage forever. Since apparently no one has the first clue what the 11 spices are, much less the proportions in which they're mixed, the company can feel safe as long as it guards the recipe.

Companies with these sorts of trade secrets generally make employees sign non-disclosure and confidentiality agreements, so the select few who get to see the recipe don't run off and start their own chicken businesses. Anyone who tries to swipe a trade secret through espionage should be ready for a lot of legal liability and potential jail time. Just ask Kate Hudson, who came under fire last month for allegedly pilfering a trade secret in the formulation of her new hair-care products.

Does that mean there's no way we'll ever see another company selling KFC's chicken?
Not quite. One downside of a trade secret is that it's perfectly legal for competitors to try to reverse engineer someone else's product. You want to make KFC chicken legally? Get in the kitchen and tinker with spice blends until you figure out the one that tastes just like it. Alternatively, if a chef serendipitously came up with the spice blend independently without sneaking a peak at KFC's recipe, she could start legally trafficking in the bird.

The KFC spice blend is just one example of a jealously guarded trade secret, though. Here are a few other notable ones:

The Coca-Cola Formula
Coke_Bottle.jpgThe Coca-Cola formula, which is known by the code name "Merchandise 7X," is possibly the best-known trade secret in the world. The formula, which dates back to the drink's 1886 invention by Joseph S. Pemberton, is written on a piece of paper that resides in an Atlanta bank. Despite decades of attempts to figure out the formula, no one has succeeded yet; these failures are why the knock-off store brand sodas you buy never taste quite like the real thing. Coke is not afraid to go to great lengths to maintain the secrecy of the formula. In 1977 the Indian government demanded that the company reveal the recipe to keep its ability to sell the beverage in India. Coke decided it would rather leave the market altogether rather than give up its secret; you couldn't buy a Coca-Cola in India until the government relented in 1993.

McDonald's "Special Sauce"
We all know the Big Mac jingle. What we don't know is exactly how to make the sauce. The burger itself was originally conceived in Pittsburgh to compete with Big Boy's signature burger, but it was so popular it had to get a national audience. The sauce is pretty analogous to Thousand Island dressing, but the actual formulation remains a secret sought by beef aficionados everywhere.

The Krispy Kreme Recipe
krispy_kreme.jpgKrispy Kreme opened in Winston-Salem, NC, in 1937 after founder Vernon Rudolph bought a secret recipe for yeast donuts from a New Orleans chef. Despite the company's meteoric rise over the last seven decades, the recipe remains locked in a vault in Winston-Salem and is known by only a select few. (As someone who went to college in Winston-Salem and ate way too many Krispy Kremes, my educated guess is that the secret ingredient is either awesomeness or love. Possibly both.)

Google AdWords
AdWords is Google's advertising product that places pay-per-click banner and text ads throughout the Web and provides site-targeted ads. The system is certainly successful; it pulled in over $16 billion last year. How do the ads get placed on individual pages, though? Good question, but it's one that will remain a mystery since the algorithm is a trade secret.

Gillette Razor Designs
Here's an example of why you don't want to steal a trade secret. In 1997, Wright Industries was helping Gillette design a new razor that was extremely confidential and potentially valuable. Wright Industries employee Steven L. Davis worried that his job was in jeopardy and had a grudge against his supervisor, so he swiped a bunch of trade secrets, including drawings of razor designs and data and sent them to Bic, Warner-Lambert, and other competitors. Bad move. The 1996 Congressional passing of the Economic Espionage Act made stealing trade secrets a federal crime. Davis pled guilty to five counts of theft of trade secrets and received a sentence of 27 months in jail and over a million dollars in fines.

Ethan Trex co-writes Straight Cash, Homey, the Internet's undisputed top source for pictures of people in Ryan Leaf jerseys.
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A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

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Ho, No: Christmas Trees Will Be Expensive and Scarce This Year
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The annual tradition of picking out the healthiest, densest, biggest tree that you can tie to your car’s roof and stuff in your living room won’t be quite the same this year. According to The New York Times, Christmas trees will be scarce in some parts of the country and markedly more expensive overall.

The reason? Not Krampus, Belsnickel, or Scrooge, but something even more miserly: the American economy. The current situation has roots in 2008, when families were buying fewer trees due to the recession. Because more trees stayed in the ground, tree farms planted fewer seeds that year. And since firs grow in cycles of 8 to 10 years, we’re now arriving at a point where that diminished supply is beginning to impact the tree industry.

New York Times reporter Tiffany Hsu reports that 2017’s healthier holiday spending habits are set to drive up the price of trees as consumers vie for the choicest cuts on the market. In 2008, trees were just under $40 on average. Now, they’re $75 or more.

This doesn’t mean you can’t get a nice tree at a decent price—just that some farms will run out of prime selections more quickly and you might have to settle for something a little less impressive than in years past. Tree industry experts also caution that the shortages could last through 2025.

[h/t New York Times]

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