fusenet’s employment/entrepreneur program

A very interesting story in IT World Canada about a company called Fusenet that has put into place a novel approach to business. In effect, it is empowering its employees to become entrepreneurs and giving them equity in their creations. Fascinating approach. Inevitably comparisons can be drawn with a similar program Google runs, but as far as I’m aware Google retains ownership of everything created by its employees. Not so with Fusenet’s model. From the article:

Every Friday, the Pet Project Program (P3) goes into effect. “If you’ve been approved into the program, on Friday, we don’t expect to see you at your desk. You’ll be in our lab or you’ll be collaborating with other people,” said Singhal.

The P3 model is codified into employee agreements and the intellectual property developed during this time does not belong to Fusenet, he said.

If an employee spends three months working every Friday to develop a new technology for better video compression, for example, and then presents it to the company, the idea still belongs to the employee, said Singhal.

Fusenet will ask the employee how much they want to sell the idea for or whether they want to start a company that will sell or license the product, he said. “We’ll help you market that and say, ‘We’ll take 50 per cent of the equity, you take the other 50 per cent,’” he said.

“We will help you with money, we will give you all the resources you need – marketing, customer service, R&D – but you get to keep a significant chunk of the equity in the business as opposed to having just the pride of being able to say you started it,” he said.

The policy applies to all employees, but it’s the software developers who are most likely to come up with the ideas, said Singhal. “We thought this was an interesting model … 99 per cent of the companies out there will take the software,” he said.

Fusenet has experienced one major success, one emerging success and two failures as a result of the model, said Singhal. Another five projects are currently in the R&D stage, he said.

Of course there is a caveat noted in the story about how such an arrangement must be carefully documented. I could also see a few risks associated with this as far as delineation of IP and who owns what. Very often, when new ideas spring up, they may be closely related to some existing intellectual property or based upon it. The question then is where the dividing line is or should be drawn and how that is set out in the documents. Not an insurmountable issue but one that does warrant a bit of thought.

I certainly admire Fusenet for having the vision and courage to adopt such a model. Of course, it’s no guarantee for success but certainly puts all the right incentives in place to have an environment conducive to that. I really do hope to see some interesting things come out of their shop in the near future. They will, after all, be very likely to attract the right sort of folks with this program.

going to china? bringing technology? careful there…

This story in Wired serves as a good reminder that export control laws, particularly U.S. export control laws, do have teeth. In short: a retired US professor was sentenced to four years in jail for sharing his research with graduate students in China. Apparently, the U.S. government felt that the research he shared was restricted technical data, disclosure of which would put U.S. national security at risk.

In this particular case, the U.S. State Department had apparently warned him, but he disregarded the warnings and went ahead anyway. So, for most folks, it’s unlikely to be much of a risk, unless of course the State Department calls you up. That being said, if you are planning to travel to and/or do business in China, Iran, etc., it might be a good idea to think about what you might not want to bring over with you on your laptop, particularly if you will be presenting any of it to citizens of those countries or leaving anything there.

Unfortunately, export controls are not exactly straightforward, particularly those dealing with the type of things you can’t export. In Canada, this is particularly the for the what’s described as “dual-use” group. This group describes things that aren’t necessarily used for sensitive purposes, but could be, hence the “dual-use” moniker.

Just as an example, take a look at Category 5 – Part 2 of the Canadian Export Control List, which deals with cryptographic technology. Not exactly an easy read. Though thankfully over the years they have put in some common sense carve-outs. You’ll find them in the tiny, tiny notes at the beginning and end. Then there’s the U.S. Export Administration Regulations, which makes the Canadian requirements look comparatively straightforward.

taking the fun out of blogging

As a lawyer, I understand the need for policies, procedures, practices, etc. when running a business, managing vendors, employees, etc. Of course. Sure. That’s part of work – both my work and the work of my clients. But when I see an article entitled “Blogging Policies and Best Practices for Lawyers and Law Firms” well, gotta say, my eyes start glazing over.

Not that there’s anything particularly bad or wrong about the article. In fact, it offers some good advice on avoiding “ethical minefields”, creating “powerful marketing tools” and ensuring you realize a good return on your “investment”.

Ugh. To be perfectly honest one of the primary reasons I blog is not to realize a return on investment, or to create a powerful marketing tool, but rather just to offer casual observations (or ruminations) on my work or things related to my work. In other words, its a bit of fun, as compared, for example, to writing a formal research paper, journal article, or a 100 page outsourcing contract. For those types of writing, there are many, many rules, requirements and policies to remember and adhere to, amongst other considerations. And relatively speaking, its not quite as much writing that stuff as it is posting what are ostensibly meandering ramblings about the next new thing. Don’t get me wrong, its certainly interesting and challenging work, but its not the type of thing one typically does to relax.

I guess what I’m getting at is along the same lines as the previous post about making blogging part of someone’s job. Its kind of like saying that its part of your job to chat up your friends at work on a regular basis. Its kind of like saying that there should be internal policies governing who you go to lunch with, and what you talk about over lunch. In other words, to me, it seems to take all the fun out of it. It makes it seem like work. It puts you in the mindset that it is work. And, to be perfectly honest, I think it makes it less interesting, because you’re too worried about the time being put into it. Too worried about whether you’re writing for your “target market”. Too worried about “visualizing and addressing your market”. Too worried on making your blog sound “informal and conversational”. Too worried about this, that and the other thing, none of which have much to do with the subject matter of what you’re writing about.

Of course, this is just my take on blogging and what I hope to achieve (or perhaps rather not to achieve) by doing 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…

Wikiality – Part III

Bit of an elaboration on a previous post on the use of Wikipedia in judgements. I cited part of a New York Times article, which had in turn quoted from a letter to the editor from Professor Kenneth Ryesky. The portion cited by the NYT article suggested that Ryesky was quite opposed to the idea, which wasn’t really the case. He was kind enough to exchange some thoughts via e-mail:

In his New York Times article of 29 January 2007, Noam Cohen quoted a sentence (the last sentence) from my Letter to the Editor published in the New York Law Journal on 18 January 2007. You obviously read Mr. Cohen’s article, but it is not clear whether you read the original Letter to the Editor from which the sentence was quoted.

Which exemplifies the point that Wikipedia, for all of its usefulness, is not a primary source of information, and therefore should be used with great care in the judicial process, just as Mr. Cohen’s article was not a primary source of information.

Contrary to the impression you may have gotten from Mr. Cohen’s New York Times article of 29 January, I am not per se against the use of Wikipedia. For the record, I myself have occasion to make use of it in my research (though I almost always go and find the primary sources to which Wikipedia directs me), and find it to be a valuable tool. But in research, as in any other activity, one must use the appropriate tool for the job; using a sledge hammer to tighten a little screw on the motherboard of my computer just won’t work.

Wikipedia and its equivalents present challenges to the legal system. I am quite confident that, after some trial and error, the legal system will acclimate itself to Wikipedia, just as it has to other text and information media innovations over the past quarter-century.

Needless to say, quite a different tone than the excerpt in the NYT article. Thanks for the clarification, Professor Ryesky.

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.


Interesting post on the Wellington Financial Blog about “Wikiality” – the practice of taking stuff in Wikipedia as the truth, or, to quote: ““a reality where, if enough people agree with a notion, it becomes the truth.”

JN notes that Wikipedia has been cited by the courts, and this is reason for concern. A snippet:

The practice poses two problems:

  1. The references may be inaccurate; and
  2. Even if accurate, the references are subject to change at any point in the future, making it difficult for any future decisions to refer back to the original or understand the context in which it was made.

Given recent reports of Microsoft offering to pay individuals to make changes to certain Wikipedia articles in which they have a vested interest, the credibility of the site as a definitive reference source again comes into question.

A few of my colleagues at the firm also expressed bemusement when a recent case in Ontario (don’t have the citation, sorry) also cited Wikipedia.

I am quite a big fan of Wikipedia. It is, I think a rather useful and handy tool to refer to from time to time. Do I take it as the gospel? No. Would I use it if I were trying to concoct an antidote for a poison that was about to kill me? Probably not. Would I cite it in a legal research paper? Possibly. In fact, quite likely.

Although Wikipedia is by no means without its weaknesses, it also has its strengths. Sure, there is a possibility of inaccuracy. But then again, isn’t something less likely to have inaccuracies if it is reviewed (and edited) by more eyes (and more minds)? Isn’t it more likely that if there is a dispute about what is and isn’t correct, it will come to light, just like the Microsoft incident?

And what source, can it be said, is free of inaccuracies? Certainly not The New York Times. Although the Gray Lady is quick to point out that it was “deceived” by an errant reporter, it is less quick to reflect on the fact that it published fabricated stories. That of course is the clearest example, but history is rife with examples of inaccurate or misleading stories in the press. Less clear, of course, is media bias. And one only needs to refer to Manufacturing Consent. I don’t necessarily agree with all that book has to offer, but it certainly provides some food for thought.

What about scientific publications? Hmmm. Well. Again, truth is quite often relative. The clearest examples, are, of course, outright fabrication. Nonetheless, Dr. Hwang Woo-suk’s paper on producting the first cloned stem cell line was considered the truth for several years, until he was discredited. And more generally speaking, is it not true that, in the world of science, what is considered to be the truth is what most scientists believe to be true? Is that not the system of peer review? A great read on this topic is The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (as an aside, its also the book that introduced the phrase “paradigm shift” into popular parlance). I won’t bore you with details, but suffice it to say that, at the end of the day, science, at least in concept, may not be that far from wikiality.

My point isn’t necessarily to skewer existing sources of “truth” but rather to point out that such sources aren’t necessarily more reliable or accurate, or less fallible, than something like Wikipedia.

And as for things changing? Make a copy.

Pretexting, Ethics and Clients

Still catching up a bit – very quick post on the HP “pretexting” thing. As you may recall, HP asserted that its practice of pretexting – i.e. pretending to be someone else to get confidential telephone records – was legal. They were investigated leaks to the press by one of their board members and had resorted to this practice to try and find the leak. I had commented elsewhere long ago when this story first broke that even if it were illegal, very few (if anyone) could consider such actions the least bit ethical.

As most of you know apparently there was some disagreement as to legality and a few folks at HP were charged. Then I read this recent story about how HP was ending its special ties to Larry Sonsini, of the California powerhouse firm of Wilson Sonsini:

Sonsini – famous for decades in these parts – gained national fame in September during HP’s spy scandal hearings in front of Congress. Emails between the lawyer, HP executives and former director Tom Perkins raised serious questions about how sound Sonsini’s advice was around the practice of pretexting. He seemed to indicate that phone record fraud sounded like fair game, after being nudged in that direction by HP’s internal lawyers.

My emphasis. Its unfortunate to hear of something like this. I don’t doubt that he took the time and effort to research the law to come to a reasonable opinion on the matter before advising his client – obviously it was a very grey area of the law. In those circumstances its unfortunate that he didn’t perhaps suggest, notwithstanding the black letter of the law, that it would be unwise do take the course of action they were contemplating. That as good corporate citizens with a significant public profile, that such a practice is not something they should even consider. But then again, maybe he did and they didn’t listen (and of course he would surely have the good sense never to say that in public and embarrass a major client) or maybe he thought that such comments were not for legal counsel to make. Who knows.

The situation is not unfamiliar to many lawyers – particularly when it comes to giving opinions – lawyers are sometimes subjected to pressure to deliver the opinion that a client wants to hear rather than the one they should probably be delivering. By this I’m certainly not suggesting lawyers are delivering bad or incorrect opinions. What I am saying is that there are often grey areas of the law (which tend to be the areas on which legal expertise are sought) and in respect of which opinions can go one of two or more ways. And sometimes, the client will want to hear a certain outcome – for example, in the case of HP, I’m sure they would have liked the comfort to hear from their external counsel that their actions were legal – it would serve as some evidence that they took some degree of diligence and could serve to mitigate consequences if it turned out governmental authorities differed. If he, on the other hand, refused, or proffered a legal opinion that it was fine but qualified with a recommendation not to take such actions, HP likely would have not been very happy with him. And everyone knows what happens when clients aren’t happy.

Its an unfortunate situation to be in. Particuarly in this case, where, at the end of the day, HP still, obviously, isn’t happy with him.