The art of simplifying the problem

One of the most important skills in resolving technical problems is not problem solving, but problem definition. Stripping a problem down to its essence often makes the solution obvious. I think this is generally true, but especially true in my experience with software tech support and tracking down software bugs.

The first stage in problem simplification is to document a set of steps that consistently reproduces the problem. These steps must be detailed enough so that someone else can use them to reproduce the problem, including a description of exactly what the problem is. Often this is the most difficult step, either because the problem doesn’t happen consistently, or because the problem description lacks detail.

The second stage is to try eliminating unnecessary steps with the goal of determining the bare minimum steps needed to reproduce the problem. If the problem is drawing-specific, this stage includes stripping everything out of the drawing except the bare minimum needed. This is often very time consuming, but almost always a worthwhile investment because it can eliminate a lot of potential dead ends in tracking down the ultimate cause. Often, this stage requires some trial and error.

The third stage is determining the exact cause and source of the problem. In my experience, even problems that at first appear very complicated can almost always be boiled down to just a few steps with a minimal amount of data.

Finally, in stage four the problem has to be solved, of course!

In future posts, I’ll share some tips and techniques that I use to simplify software problems.

AutoCAD drawing files: possession is 9/10 of the law?

The title sums up the puzzling conclusion in a recent 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling (CA6 Grusenmeyer Decision.pdf) in a decision about a copyright infringement claim filed by Cleveland architect Jeffrey Grusenmeyer.

Grusenmeyer had contracted to provide a “master plan” for Magnificat High School. The master plan was provided to Magnificat in hardcopy format, Magnificat paid the architect $15,000 as agreed in the contract, and the project was apparently concluded. Some time later, a Magnificat facility manager requested DWG files for “personal use”. Grusenmeyer asserted at the time that he retained all rights to the DWG files but agreed to provide them on the condition they only be used internally and not be further distributed.

Fast forward to the eventual “request for proposal” for an anticipated new building at the school. Upon request, Magnificat provided the Grusenmeyer files to the defendants (a competing architectural firm), who then used portions of the files in their winning proposal. The defendants were aware that Grusenmeyer claimed copyrights to the files, but they used the files anyway. The appeals court notes that “[a]ccording to the individual DSC architects, such reliance on drawings of existing conditions is routine in the industry.”

In affirming the district court’s summary judgement in favor of the defendants, the appeals court noted that the contract between Grusenmeyer and his client (Magificat High School) provided that Grusenmeyer would “provide a master plan for the implementation of the capital improvements program, including plans, renderings, and perspectives suitable for use in presentation and future reference during master plan implementation.” They concluded that this “plain language” gave Magnificat permission to send the AutoCAD DWG files to Grusenmeyer’s competitor.

The district court had previously ruled that Grusenmeyer’s drawings were not sufficiently original to warrant copyright protection, but the appeals court did not address the copyrightability issue at all, dismissing the infringement claim out of hand with their opinion that Grusenmeyer had already given Magnificat carte blanche copyrights to the files vis a vis the quoted clause in their contract — even though the files were never provided as part of the contract!

I think the court erred in determining that the DWG files were subject to the terms of the master plan contract (its incorrect interpretation of the contract notwithstanding), but what I find really surprising in the ruling is the appellate court’s complete disregard of the plaintiff’s claimed and federally registered copyrights.

The moral of the story
If you are providing electronic files, don’t rely on copyright law alone to protect your intellectual property. This case reinforces the 3 C’s for protecting AutoCAD DWG files: copyright, contract, and CADLock.

William Patry (Senior Copyright Counsel, Google Inc.) writes about this case at The Patry Copyright Blog: Make Sure the Contract is Signed.

Do you use protection?

If you were at AU this year, you may have seen some of my take5 and AUGI friends wearing blue T-shirts with this tag line on the back. This year my CADLock compatriots (Dietmar Rudolph of Germany and Steve Johnson of Australia) were both at AU, so we decided to have a little fun with this protection theme. We brought some “protection” to go along with the shirts (no, those little matchbooks did not contain matches).

Now that you’re back home, I hope you’ll take a few minutes to learn how to protect your AutoCAD drawings. You can download CADVault for AutoCAD from the CADLock web site and run it in fully functional evaluation mode to see for yourself how CADVault can securely lock your AutoCAD drawing content.

Help fight IP theft: practice safe CAD!