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This morning I was listening to the latest podcast from the excellent Planet Money team. They were looking into the history of non-disclosure agreements, in particular how they came to be used to gag whistle-blowers from revealing misconduct, corruption, discrimination, and harassment.

They contrasted this relatively new role with the seemingly innocuous, indeed reasonable, use to prevent employees of corporations from revealing secrets.

It occurs to me that this must also be a relatively new phenomenon. In the past, people learned a trade through apprenticeship, and employers could lose the skills that had accumulated in their employees if they risked losing them to other firms.

Now, the ‘secrets’, most if not all of which will have been generated by the employees themselves (whoever heard of a shareholder fixing a software bug or suggesting a new product feature?) can be owned by the employers, preventing the employees from embodying the intellectual capital that they are accumulating — indeed creating — in their own minds.

Non-disclosure agreements are a land-grab by employers. Denying employees the option to take their ideas elsewhere is like cutting the hands off of the blacksmith, or the eyes out of the portrait painter.

Written on April 8, 2018