Trade Secrets

A change of attitude should be noted. The ethos of science now demands prompt and costless disclosure of discoveries. In times past mathematicians usually communicated only the new theorems to their colleagues, keeping the proofs to themselves.

In the arts things were similar. Composers borrowed without scruples from themselves and others. In most cases the music was processed, but there exist instances of pure theft, such as the sonata by Andreas Anton Schmelzer (not to be confounded with his father Johann Heinrich Schmelzer) to celebrate the escape of Vienna from the siege by the Turks, where he just "borrowed" one of Biber's "Mystery Sonatas", spoken of elsewhere, "The Crucifixion", transposing the piece a semitone up, adding one tiny little movement, and giving the movements fancy names referring to the battle. The hammer blows from driving the nails into the body of Christ being reinterpreted as artillery fire on the walls of Vienna.

A similar instance from the same Century is the case of Cardano, to whom Tartaglia in confidence disclosed a method of solving cubic equations, and who published the result as his own work. It is not to wonder that artists and scientists became jealous of their secrets.

According to Titon du Tillet's "Le Parnasse Francois" from 1732, the young violist Marin Marais had to practice qualified "industrial espionage" against his teacher de Sainte Colombe in order to find out the more subtle mysteries of bowing. Du Tillet writes:

"Sainte Colombe was the teacher of Marais, but, having realized after six months that his pupil might surpass himself, he told him that he had nothing more to show him.

Marais, who loved the viol passionately, however, wanted to learn more from his master in order to perfection himself in playing that instrument; and, as he had some access to the house, he chose a time in the summer when Sainte Colombe was in his garden hidden in a little plank cabinet that he had built on the branches of a mulberry tree, to the end of being able to play his viol more at ease and with greater delicacy

Marais slipped under this cabinet; he listened to his master and profited from some special passages and some special bowings which his master wished to keep to himself. But this did not last for long. Sainte Colombe became aware of the facts and took precautions not to being heard by his pupil again". This feather of an anecdote was, by the way, some years ago used in the successful movie "Tous les matins du monde" to reconstruct an entire poultry farm.

We could also cite from Mozart's letters: Concerning his piano concerto in E-flat (KV 449), lent to his father Leopold, which he wanted back, he writes in May 1784: "I will be pleased to have patience until I get it back - provided it does not come in the hands of anybody. -1 could have had 24 Ducats for it today; - however I find it can be more profitable for me to keep it a few years and then make it known only in engraving (print)." And, two years earlier to his sister Nannerl concerning a fugue: "Please do keep your word not to show the music to anybody. - Learn it by heart and play it so, it is not so easy to imitate a fugue."

Today all such novelties would immediately be regarded as common property. It also becomes increasingly difficult technically to protect property rights to scientific or artistic innovations in our age of easy mass-communication and mass-reproduction.

These technological improvements on one hand help to protect physically embodied originals in the case they are old and delicate, on the other hand they impede protection of the property rights to the ideas. The public good character of ideas, in various ways, makes it almost impossible to secure the originators their merited rewards.

It is interesting to note that it was in France, about the time Marais spied on Sainte Colombe, that a remarkable attempt was made to lift the inclination to secrecy among the scientists, by Marin Mersenne founding an embryo to the French Academy. Mersenne clearly realized that every scientist would profit from knowing the results achieved and the methods used by others, so as to build their research on a fundament of common knowledge. Mersenne obviously inspired trust among his colleagues, though the success was only partial. Though Mersenne was one of the few people that Pierre de Fermat at all corresponded with, he could not be convinced to disclose his proofs. Had Mersenne only been a little bit more successful, the three Centuries of vain hunting for the proof of "Fermat's Last Theorem" might not have been necessary. Mersenne is of interest in the present context also because he in 1634 published his "Harmonie Universelle", which today provides one of the best sources of knowledge concerning historical musical instruments.

We should admit that trade secret has been kept for scientific discovery even in modern times as soon as there is a relation to military aims. Research concerning nuclear physics was quite recently kept highly secret, as is still anything having to do with biological and chemical warfare agents.

The same holds true for the purely mathematical discipline of cryptography. Attitudes vary between periods of war and peace, but a certain degree of secrecy is always there.

The same, of course, holds for industrial procedures that may be patented, but here we deal with applied results of little significance for basic science.

On the whole it, however, still holds that attitudes have shifted to much more openness. Perhaps we should not be too boastful over this progress as the changing attitudes may in fact have something to do with the increasing difficulty of keeping secrets in modern society.

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