wherefore art thou, shareholders agreement?

Most of you have already seen the news about eBay‘s claim again Craigslist reported in Wired and other places. Apparently, eBay is concerned about some action that the Craigslist folks took that diluted eBay’s holdings. Which left me scratching my head a bit, given the little I know about Craigslist, which is that I found it surprising that they would have sought financing (as I couldn’t see why they would want or need it given Craigslist particular approach to its site). However the Wired article explained:

EBay, the world’s largest online auctioneer, was an unsolicited suitor to quirky Craigslist in 2004. An unnamed former Craigslist shareholder sought out eBay and sealed a deal whose financial terms were never disclosed.

Ouch. Presumably, the folks at Craigslist either did not have that shareholder under a shareholders agreement, or they did, but it did not have provisions that would, for example, allow for the right to repurchase shares in certain situations, such as when the shareholder is thinking of selling to someone else, who might, for example, be a competitor, or become a competitor.

Which is why the first piece of advice I give to startups and other early stage companies is that they should be very, very, very careful when it comes to issuing stock or options. Its great that companies want employees and others to share in their prosperity as they grow, but very often what is overlooked is that shares (or stock as those Yanks call it) in addition to providing an economic benefit as they appreciate, also provides for a whole host of rights that you may or may not necessarily want to give out. And which don’t require a majority to exercise (but which can still be a royal pain to deal with), as eBay’s claim illustrates (I should emphasize that I’m not commenting on whether or not eBay’s claim has merit, but rather the circumstances that allowed it to happen in the first place).

Shareholders, even small shareholders, have the potential to cause a lot of difficuties for companies (particular smaller companies) through not only their voting rights, but also statutory rights, such as claims of oppression or the ability to require a company to be audited. For those considering option plans or share ownership plans, its usually a good idea to investigate alternative but equivalent forms of compensation (profit sharing, phantom stock) before going with option or share plans. And if even if you do decide on options or shares, please, please, please get a shareholders agreement in place – trust me, you won’t regret it.

Fair Use and the DMCA

An article in Wired News with the dramatic title of “Lawmakers Tout DMCA Killer” describes the most recent attempt to: (a) water down the protections afforded to content owners by the DMCA; (b) ensure the preservation of fair use rights on the part of users. As is usual, each side has its own rhetoric to describe what is happening, so in fairness I took the liberty of offering to readers of this blog the two alternative descriptions above. The nub:

The Boucher and Doolittle bill (.pdf), called the Fair Use Act of 2007, would free consumers to circumvent digital locks on media under six special circumstances.

Librarians would be allowed to bypass DRM technology to update or preserve their collections. Journalists, researchers and educators could do the same in pursuit of their work. Everyday consumers would get to “transmit work over a home or personal network” so long as movies, music and other personal media didn’t find their way on to the internet for distribution.

And then of course on the other side:

“The suggestion that fair use and technological innovation is endangered is ignoring reality,” said MPAA spokeswoman Gayle Osterberg. “This is addressing a problem that doesn’t exist.”

Osterberg pointed to a study the U.S. Copyright Office conducts every three years to determine whether fair use is being adversely affected. “The balance that Congress built into the DMCA is working.” The danger, Osterberg said, is in attempting to “enshrine exemptions” to copyright law.

To suggest that content owners have the right to be paid for their work is, for me, a  no-brainer. That being said, I wonder whether the DMCA and increasingly more complex and invasive DRM schemes will ultimately backfire – sure they protect the content, but they sure as heck are a pain in the ass – just my personal take on it. For example, I’d love to buy digital music, but having experienced the controls that iTunes imposes and suddenly having all my tracks disappear, I just don’t bother with it now. Not to mention the incredible hoops one needs to go through to display, say, Blu-ray on a computer – at least in its original, non-downgraded resolution – why bother with all of that at all?

I wonder whether this is, in a way, history repeating itself in a way. I am old enough to remember the early days of software protection – virtually every high-end game or application used fairly sophisticated techniques (like writing non-standard tracks on floppies in between standard tracks) in attempting to prevent piracy. Granted, these have never gone away altogether, particularly for super high end software that needs dongles and and the like, and of course recently there has been a resurgence in the levels of protection that have been layered on in Windows, but after the initial, almost universal lockdown of software long ago, there came a period where it seemed many (if not most) software developers just stopped using such measures.  At least that’s what seemed to happen. I’m not quite sure why, but I wonder if this same pattern will repeat with content rather than software. I suspect not. But hey, you never know.

In the meantime, off I go, reluctantly, in the cold, cold winter, to the nearest record shop to buy music the old fashioned way…

Virtual Diplomacy

Short one as its getting late. Interesting piece on how Sweden is setting up an embassy in Second Life. As most of you know, Second Life is a MMORPG – a virtual world of sorts where people can control computer generated images of people in a virtual world.

That being said, somewhat less exciting than first blush, as the new virtual Swedish embassy will only provide information on visas, immigration, etc. Perhaps not surprising – I mean, its not like you should be able to get a real-world passport through the use of your virtual character. Nor, God forbid, do I hope they’re introducing the bureaucracy of passports to travel through virtual countries….

D-Wave’s Quantum Computing Demo

As I mentioned earlier, there was a Canadian company that announced it would demonstrate a working quantum computer this week. And demonstrate they did. Yesterday. In California. Then they released this press release, which is frustratingly short on details.

There was some other minor press coverage, including a short article in Scientific American. The nub:

For the demonstration, he says D-Wave operators remotely controlled the quantum computer, housed in Burnaby, British Columbia, from a laptop in California. The quantum computer was given three problems to solve: searching for molecular structures that match a target molecule, creating a complicated seating plan, and filling in Sudoku puzzles.

But experts say the announcement may be a bit – er – premature. Even if the computer were to work as advertised, it still would be nearly 1,000 times too small to solve problems that stump ordinary computers. Moreover, researchers do not know whether it will work at bigger sizes.

A similar tone was in most other articles that didn’t parrot the press release – namely, that the demo was not very impressive. That part is rather unfortunate, although not wholly unexpected – the company did indicate (somewhere) that this was intended to be a proof of concept to gain interest.

So I guess at least for the foreseeable future, the cryptography industry will still be around.