copyright infringement question

Richard Gaskin ambassador at
Tue Apr 15 11:22:51 EDT 2008

Sadhu, I'm not an attorney and I don't even play one on TV, so I can't
begin to offer any meaningful legal opinion on your good questions.

But with my limited perspective as a legal layman, I don't share the 
opinion of some here who seems to suggest that everything you proposed 
is necessarily an infringement.  Some of it may be, esp. formal "reverse 
engineering", but I know from being in this field for 20 years that 
hardly any major commercial software product is designed without having 
a competitor's running on a computer in the meeting room at one time or 
another.  How else would one strike a competitive advantage on bullet 
points if the bullet points were not examined carefully?

There is of course a broad range of possible activities between careful 
study of a competing app and formal reverse engineering, and we also 
know that there are "clean room" methods of reverse engineering that are 
used all the time and have withstood the test of the courts.

The subtle differences across the various options you presented are the 
subject of many legal opinions and papers far outside of my expertise. 
As they say, the devil is in the details; I'll leave the interpretation 
of legality to licensed professionals in that field.

But as a software designer, my only question about reverse engineering 
would be, "Why bother?"

Software is expensive to write, and the only software worth writing is
that which hasn't been written before.  It's almost always more 
cost-effective to simply buy an existing software than to reproduce it.

Even if what you're proposing were legally acceptable it sounds like
the sort of thing that can lead to a "me too" product, which would 
launch it in the precarious position of competing without innovation, 
without the Unquestionable Value that might otherwise allow it to 
leapfrog the competition altogether.

Over the last decade only a few truly new technologies have been 
introduced which made compelling features in themselves.  The greatest 
opportunities for innovation in software products come from the human 
side, from an ever better understanding of the user's workflow and their 
mental conceptualization of it.

I don't know the specifics of the project in question so this may all be 
irrelevant.  But on the odd chance that it may apply to your 
circumstance, here's my $0.04 worth:

Rather than copy these competitors, ignore them.

Go around them and instead spend the time directly with end-users, 
observing them carefully, understanding how they think about their 
workflow, how those who interact with the inputs and outputs of the 
program think about the process, and take the understanding you gain 
from all that and come up with a solution that's completely different 
from what this other vendor has.

The nice thing about living in an imperfect world is that there's so 
much room for improvement.  Even the best products evidence gaping holes 
in their understanding of the user's true needs, and therein lies a 
million opportunities for innovation.

"It is precisely because he does not compete with the world
  that the world cannot beat him."
  - Chuang Tzu

  Richard Gaskin
  Fourth World Media Corporation
  Ambassador at

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