Will Autodesk Sue?

In a comment to my earlier post titled “GStarICAD 2007 Woes“, a reader asked an interesting question:

“Can Autodesk suit a CAD-company that uses ObjectARX to enable vertical solution providers use this CAD-company’s platform not changing their solutions for AutoCAD? So the vertical solution to AutoCAD is compatible to AutoCAD itself as well as to this CAD-company platform.”

Basically, the question is whether Autodesk can sue a company that makes an ObjectARX source compatible SDK, like how some developers of AutoCAD clones have done, doing or are planning to do.

First off, I would like to say that a company as large as Autodesk can sue anybody for anything. Why? Because they are an 800 pound gorilla. They really do not need a very good reason before they can start suing someone. Case in point – DWG and orange rectangle (see “Autodesk vs SolidWorks“). Having said that I would like to reply to this question by turning this around a bit.

Personally, I believe that Autodesk has not started suing these companies because its management does not believe that they pose a significant threat to them. At least not yet. As it stands, these companies are busy chasing Autodesk’s tail, trying to offer everything that AutoCAD offers. The situation may change if and when these companies start offering more than what AutoCAD offers and somehow come up with formidable marketing to match or come respectably close to that of Autodesk.

However, for argument sake, let’s assume that all of the above happens, these clones start stepping on Autodesk’s big fat toes and it begins to hurt. In such a situation one would expect Autodesk to direct its well paid legal team to start suing these companies. And as I found out here, the fact that a company called GreatStar Software is violating a bunch of copyright laws by shipping Autodesk headers along with its ObjectARX clone will only make Autodesk lawyers’ work easier. On the other hand, Bricsys, another company that actually has a working ObjectARX clone for some time now, has taken a lot of care to see that they do not end up doing something that stupid as GreatStar. They seem to be playing safe. And rightly so because they know what they are up against.

Having said all of this, it is possible that instead of Autodesk suing these companies, they could do something much smarter. Instead of fighting these companies in court, something which could go on forever, Autodesk could cut the air supply to the ObjectARX clones thereby drastically reducing their sting. By air supply I mean the third party developers who use the ObjectARX clones to effortlessly port their ObjectARX plug-ins to work with the clones. How they could do this needs a little explanation.

I am not sure how many developers actually read the ObjectARX License Agreement, but here is part of one clause that I think is very important:

“You may make unlimited copies of the Software and give copies to other persons or entities so long as (i) all such copies are used to develop applications for Autodesk products based on the AutoCAD® platform and excluding AutoCAD LT®, DWG TrueConvert™, and DWG TrueView™…”

This means that when a plug-in developer downloads and installs the ObjectARX SDK, he essentially agrees not to use it to develop plug-ins for non-AutoCAD based applications. But by using the ObjectARX SDK to build an AutoCAD plug-in and then simply pointing his compiler to the libraries of an ObjectARX clone to build a plug-in for it, he is doing precisely that and violating the ObjectARX License Agreement. It is important to note that a large number of companies who accept this agreement (which includes SYCODE) are members of the Autodesk Developer Network (ADN) and enjoy a bunch of benefits due to their relationship with Autodesk. These ADN members can be fired for just this one reason alone. Not that Autodesk needs a reason to fire someone from the ADN program. But this give them all the more reason to do so. This is one of the main reasons why at SYCODE we built our Bricscad plug-ins using the ODA’s DRX SDK and not the BRX SDK, which is an ObjectARX clone. I value my SYCODE ADN membership as much as I value my partnership with Bricsys and if there is a way to work with both companies without violating the agreements that I signed with them, then I will take that path.

So to answer the question, yes, Autodesk can and most probably will sue a company if they do something as stupid as shipping ObjectARX headers along with their ObjectARX clone. If they are careful not to violate copyright laws and other intellectual property rights, then Autodesk may think twice. But the ObjectARX License Agreement makes that difficult as well. Here is part of another clause:

“The structure, organization, and code of the Autodesk Materials are valuable trade secrets of Autodesk and its licensors and You shall keep such trade secrets confidential”

I am not sure how this plays out. If I were to make an ObjectARX clone, I would have to download the ObjectARX SDK first, before which I would have to agree to keep the “structure, organization and code” confidential, which is precisely what I am about to clone and distribute.

I once asked an senior Autodesk executive if he was worried about AutoCAD clones. He admitted that many years ago when they first appeared on the scene, Autodesk was worried. But not any longer. He told me, “They are all too messed up with their internal struggles and busy competing with each other. Price alone does not matter. If it did then nobody would be using AutoCAD today. Customers look at stability, support, extensibility through partner solutions and a whole range of other factors before investing in a CAD system that will directly affect their bottom line.

As far as the issue of tackling ObjectARX clones is concerned, Autodesk has quite a few options. If they can sue SolidWorks for using “DWG” and an orange rectangle, then I guess they can sue the developers of ObjectARX clones for a multitude of reasons, most of which sound pretty good to me. They can squeeze ADN members who use these ObjectARX clones. They can do both. The have the money and the resources at their disposal to do so. But I think they will contemplate using these options only if and when the time comes. And I believe that the time has not yet come.