Did the Open Design Alliance walk into a trap?

With Autodesk suing the OpenDesign Alliance for Trademark Infringement (see full article here), I cannot help but think that the ODA walked right into a trap set by Autodesk.

It’s no secret that Autodesk has continuously tried to make life increasingly difficult for the ODA. They have gone to lengths to make the DWG file format more difficult to reverse engineer, and for good reason (see my article ‘Should Autodesk keep the DWG format a secret?‘). Since this approach has not worked well, they have now gone the legal way. It appears that Autodesk left the ODA no option but to violate their trademark.

On May 12, 2006, the ODA had a press release titled ‘Update on status of DWG 2007‘. I found these parts particularly interesting:

“We have, at this time, reverse-engineered the high level format for DWG 2007. Based on the initial information we’ve received from the software engineers doing the work, it appears that the new file format is significantly scrambled at a high level. It seems that this might be at least partially a result of Autodesk including Reed-Solomon error correcting code (ECC) in the files. (ECC is a good thing, and if this is the only reason for the format being scrambled, we’d certainly have nothing to complain about.)”

“If this is the only reason for the format being scrambled”. Hmmm…. They go on to explain about TrustedDWG, the thing which has come back to haunt them.

“The 2007 versions of AutoCAD-based products introduce a concept called ‘Trusted DWG.’ This is an update of the existing DWGCHECK functionality that has been in AutoCAD-based products for some time. Trusted DWG, from what we can tell, has little to do with DWG files actually being trustworthy—it is primarily a verification process that AutoCAD-based products do to check if a DWG file was last written by an Autodesk program. The mechanism used is an encrypted digital signature, placed in the DWG file (starting with the DWG 2004.) This digital signature includes a checksum (which verifies that the file hasn’t been changed since it was written), and a code indicating which Autodesk product wrote the file. Up until this point, we’ve not provided an API to support reading or writing this digital signature, as it seemed to be fairly benign, and of little practical use. With the apparent inclusion of true ECC in the DWG format, it makes sense for us to start supporting this feature.”

So the ODA never wanted to support the TrustedDWG feature because “it seemed to be fairly benign, and of little practical use”. However, I believe the main reason for this decision was to avoid trademark infringement. It looks like they were left with no other choice.

There is absolutely nothing illegal about reverse engineering the DWG file format. As far as my understanding about trademarks goes, I can buy a bottle of Coke, analyse its contents in a lab and come up with the formula. Assuming patents are not involved here, I can then make a soft drink using that formula, sell it and make money. But there is no way I can label my product as “Coke” or something that is confusingly similar to “Coke”. What Autodesk have done with TrustedDWG is exactly this. They have forced the ODA to support TrustedDWG, thereby making them violate their trademark. I may be wrong. Let me know.

Since the ODA went ahead and supported the TrustedDWG feature, I guess their lawyers have already built a case in defense. One thing is sure. The battle lines are drawn and this fight will be interesting.