This is a selfie-FAQ, in which I interview myself over the implications for industry given Autodesk's law suit against ZWSOFT (of China, and its closely-linked American distributor, Global Force Direct).
Q: Why did Autodesk sue ZWSOFT?
A: ZWSOFT originally based its ZWCAD software on the IntelliCAD code licensed from ITC. But then like some other CAD vendors, ZWSOFT likely decided to become independent of ITC and so a couple years ago rewrote the code.
Every corporation has a competitive analysis group, and the one at Autodesk no doubt examined ZWCAD+ and determined it acted suspiciously like AutoCAD -- right down to bugs that allegedly acted identically in both software packages.
Q: What does Autodesk hope to accomplish through this law suit?
A: Autodesk cannot shut down or fine ZWSOFT out of existence, because it is located in China. There are, after all, benefits to being located in the Middle Kingdom. Autodesk can, however, ask the court to block physical sales of the Chinese software in the United States, just like, for example, Apple tries to block sales in America of cell phones made by Korean and Taiwanese firms.
I expect Autodesk to launch similar legal action in other countries with strong copyright laws, such as those in Europe.
Should its sales be blocked in specific countries, ZWSOFT could continue selling to Americans and Europeans through the Web.
Q: Can this court case hurt AutoCAD workalikes?
A: This law suit could be seen as a warning shot across the bows of the makers of other AutoCAD workalikes. It is my opinion that Autodesk's sales force could use this court case to warn customers against considering workalikes, which would hurt them more.
But workalikes might benefit in having one less competitor in what is a crowded field.
In the end, I suspect Global Force Direct may be the one most affected.
Q: Why now?
A: Autodesk worries about how much AutoCAD sales have slipped, though this is no fault of the workalikes. Autodesk of late has been emphasizing sales of suites above all, and their suits include AutoCAD "for free." Autodesk on its own reduced demand for AutoCAD; perhaps the company feels that sales would again increase should the number of competitors be reduced.
The company also attempts to limit sales of workalikes through marketing, starting in the late 1990s with its "100% Real DWG" marketing campaign that followed the launch of IntelliCAD.
Q: Will Autodesk sue the makers of other AutoCAD workalikes?
A: They will, if they can find evidence that would allow them to pursue court action. But Western software firms needn't worry, for they are well versed in American copyright jurisprudence.
Q: So, are AutoCAD workalikes -- ARES, BricsCAD, GstarCAD, IntelliCAD, etc -- legal, or illegal?
A: It depends on how they wrote the code. If they used the blackbox approach, then the CAD program is legal, even if it looks and works identical to AutoCAD; if, however, they copied code, then not.
The act of "cloning" software became legal in the mid-1980s after IBM sued a BIOS cloner, but then lost the case. The cloner proved to the court its programmers never saw IBM's BIOS source code. They worked in a certified "clean room" (no exposure to the competitor's source code), and saw only the black box version, in which they applied inputs, observed the outputs (how the BIOS reacted), and then wrote code to mimic the reactions.
It is tempting for programmers to copy and paste snippets of code -- because code reuse is normal among programmers, just as it is normal (and efficient) for CAD operators to reuse parts/symbols/blocks in drawings. However, western programmers and contract programmers in the east are warned against this practice. To stave off law suits, they have the tedious job of writing differently what's already been written.
Q: In the end, how do we customers determine which AutoCAD workalikes won't be sued?
A: Well, Autodesk would tell you to be safe and buy only from them, of course. But they are pricing themselves out of the market, and so there is now a healthy competition among vendors of mid-priced workalikes. (Annual updates = healthy competition.)
Among the workalikes, products from Bricsys, and those based on ARES, IntelliCAD, and Open Design Alliance are safe. These write their code using the blackbox system precisely to ensure they are not sued out of business. Others, I don't know.
Q: Any negatives for Autodesk?
A: Some. People who dislike Autodesk will see this as evidence of bullying.
This could trigger an investigation into anti-competitive behavior, which Autodesk has faced at least twice before from the US government.
Paying lawyers will somewhat reduce the higher margins CEO Carl Bass is promising financial analysts.
But the most significant negative for Autodesk may be how the Chinese government reacts, given the close ties between it and ZWSOFT. Perhaps consumer show "3.15" will be unleashed, as it has been against Western firms Nikon, Danone, and Apple?