Podtech.net: CTO InfoTalk Series

John Furrier invited me on his PodTech show last week. We discussed quite a few things including Open Source and RSS.

One thing I found very interesting is the gear John used. His setup consisted of an iRiver, a laptop, two mics and a mixing board. Minus the cost of the laptop, he was able to record and produce the show with approximately $500 worth of equipment. At that price point, I continue to believe that Podcasting will continue to grow at a torrid pace. (Having Apple add Podcast support in iTunes certainly won't hurt)

Listen to the first segment here

Open Source and IP -- Legal Advice

The second post in my series on IP and Open Source - obtaining and using legal advice.

You've decided to use Open Source in your project or prototype. You've learned a lot about Open Source and licensing. Next up (if you can afford it) is to obtain some sound legal advice to ensure you are taking the correct path. Sounds straightforward, but in my experience, it is not.

Open Source is still very new to a lot of people in the legal world. Your challenge is to find the best resource you can afford, making sure that the person is at least as up to speed on things as you are (trust me, not as easy as it sounds). The last thing you want to do is spend what little seed money you have on an attorney that learns the ropes on your dime. One suggestion for finding a knowledgeable person is to look at the law firms that are used by groups like OSI, Sourceforge (OSTG), etc. Check out their press releases and "about us" type links. (Full disclosure - my previous company MessageCast worked with Mark Radcliffe from DLA Piper, who is the General Counsel for OSI)

Once you select an attorney, strive to make the most of your time with them. Come prepared for any and all meetings. Do as much prep work as possible to put the relevant info at their fingertips. A good agenda item for the first meeting is to discuss the different Open Source licensing schemes (GPL, LGPL, etc) and make sure that your understanding of each is correct. Ask the attorney to walk through different scenarios ("what happens if we use GPL on our website, but don't distribute?", "what happens if we modify Apache 2.0 code and distribute", etc etc). Be clear what your business model is/will be - will you be distributing code or running it all in a SOA framework? In my experience, the two major issues to work through will be distribution and modification.

Since you have already done some homework on the licensing issues, you should be able to wrap-up an initial session in as little as two or three hours. Your total costs might be as high as $3000, but the up-front work you do now can literally be a primary determinant on whether or not your company moves forward.

Once you are in agreement with the attorney on the nature of the different licenses, document what you have learned. Boil down the major points into an easy to understand table, making it easy enough to post on your Dev Wiki. Review the Wiki entry with everyone involved, making sure that they understand the big picture view. Most of all, make sure they understand that licenses differ and the future of your company depends on them.

Open Source and IP -- Licensing

First up in my series of posts about IP and Open Source is an important issue - understanding licensing. This issue can be somewhat obscure and seem unimportant at the beginning of a startup's life. It isn't -- consider it to be one of the most important items in the future of your company. Ignore at your own peril.

As an entrepreneur, if you are thinking about using open source in your prototype or project, you will need to become knowledgeable about the various types of licenses used by various open source projects.

(Disclaimer -- I am not a lawyer. The opinions expressed are mine and should simply be considered a starting point NOT an end-all-be-all explanation of a very complex issue)

There are quite a few licenses -- fortunately you can cover quite a bit of ground by reviewing and understanding just a handful of them. The vast majority of other licenses will probably be derivative of these major licenses (and probably even say so in their docs) Understanding licenses might be the difference between having to distribute any modifications you have made in source code form, or distributing in binary form with the proper attribution.

As you might guess, having to distribute your changes in source code form to your competitors might cause more than one VC to end the due diligence process immediately and move onto other startups with IP that can be protected.

Major Open Source Licenses

1. GPL - GNU General Public License. The granddaddy of them all and also one of the licenses that causes some big headaches if it isn't understood. The GPL FAQ pretty much sums up the issue that can kill a round of funding before it even begins:

if you release the modified version to the public in some way, the GPL requires you to make the modified source code available to the program's users, under the GPL.

In other words, if you modify a library or framework that uses the GPL for licensing and then intend to distribute the work, you have to distribute the complete source also. Any VC will immediately notice that your IP has diminished in value. How much value has been lost depends on how much of a differential advantage the changes provide your startup.

2. LGPL - GNU Lesser General Public License. A somewhat less restrictive version of the GPL. However, it can have significant impact - tread carefully.

3. Apache 2.0 - The latest revision from the Apache Group. In my experience a large percentage of libraries and frameworks are under this license (Apache web server, Tomcat, Jakarta) In general, the license is easy to work with and understand.

4. BSD-style licenses - Generally one of the least restrictive requirements. An example is the OpenSSL licenses which state:

... both licenses are BSD-style Open Source licenses

This might be a bit confusing at first ("what does BSD-style mean??") but realize that the intent is to allow for modification and distribution of the modification in binary form.

Moving Forward

Print out a copy of each of the licenses listed above. Read over them three or four times. Do some research, ask questions, make notes. It will be time well-spent. Note that a large number of licenses can be found at OpenSource.org

Open Source and IP

Over the last few years, I've been heavily exposed to the vast array of Open Source projects. Everything from the commonly used Apache Web server, Tomcat, JBoss, Apache Commons, Struts, OJB and a number of other projects.

The quality of these projects is fantastic and can enable a startup to utilize Best Practices in many areas. However, there is also a potential issue regarding a company's intellectual property (IP) that, if not handled properly, can become a significant impediment to long-term success.

In the next month or so, I plan to make a series of posts about open source and IP and strategies for entreprenuers who plan to build a business around this new and exciting area.

Microsoft Purchases MessageCast

[A very belated post] Microsoft acquired the company I co-founded last Wednesday. Kudos to everyone involved, as a lot of folks worked hard on hammering out an agreement and keeping things moving forward. (Brad Feld from Mobius has a few comments here)

Everyone at MessageCast is excited to work more closely with the crew at MSFT and grow, grow, grow the business. We should be moving from our office in RWC to SVC in the near-term.

(InfoWorld link)

106 Miles - April Meeting

Last night I attended the April 106 Miles meeting at the new location in Palo Alto.

Presenters were Russell Beattie and Mike Rowehl. I was pretty familiar with plenty of Russell's thought as I regularly read his blog. Even so, I was surprised at some of the numbers - phones are the future. As I am not a "mobile guy", lots of the subtle/finer points of the Q&A were lost on me. The Treo crowd seemed to have some definite opinions about things :-)

Thanks to Joyce for putting it all together and CommerceNet for hosting.

Laptops for everyone

Recently, I was reminded how important machine portability is the age of broadband/WiFi/VPN. Not that this is new to anyone, but I had an experience where a Developer was spending quite a bit of time keeping his environments (office and home) in synch.

He and I went over his machine requirements and decided a desktop was the way to go. He was pleased with the performance, etc. However, it wasn't too long before he was doing the occasional task remotely. He noticed immediately that a laptop would have been much more convenient. Unforunately, the dollars from the budget have been spent and acquiring a laptop for him isn't in the cards at the moment.

Which brings me to a basic tenet for my newly created "20 Rules of Entreprenuership" -- get everyone a laptop! No more desktops. The ability to work remotely is a requirement in this day and age, not a luxury (Of course, this ties into the corollary "Provide VPN Access to the Network")