Recently, I was contacted by a company that refurbishes used medical equipment. The owner, we’ll call him Harvey, purchased a machine which has a PLC for the main controlling the different system components and to bridge communications between these other systems. The issue was that the PLC’s memory had been erased due to the backup battery going dead after several years of non use. Normally this is no problem if you have access to the original PLC program, which he did not. Going into this call, I knew that the machine was developed and programmed by a large multinational conglomerate and that there was a good chance of the memory being password protected. My suspicions were correct. Even though the memory was blank, I still could not access any of it with my programming software because of the password. Knowing one of the top application engineers, we’ll call him John, in the country from the PLC manufacturer, I gave him a call to see if there was a workaround. I knew that this was an intellectual property issue right from the start and that even if he could ‘crack’ the code, Harvey would probably still be out of luck. It turned out, again, that I was right. John knew exactly how to get around the password, but was not legally allowed to do so because of the manufacturer of the machine. He told me under which circumstances that it would be allowed and how to go about getting the proper authorization so that he would be able to help. I informed Harvey of this and he was very appreciative of the efforts but disappointed at the same time. He asked if there was anyway that John would be able to ‘make it happen’ as the conglomerate wanted 5x the cost of the PLC parts for a replacement that was preprogrammed. Harvey couldn’t afford to, nor did he feel he should have to, pay such an inflated rate and ended up having to cancel the order with his customer.
When faced with protected intellectual property, Harvey’s response is not uncommon. I’ve seen it numerous times. People feel that if they own something, that they own the rights to anything inside it, including software. For an example, imagine you spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, and 5 years, developing a robotic widget and of that, only about 1% went to developing the software that makes it function. Quite an insignificant amount of time and money on the whole project. Now think of how useful the widget would be completely assembled and ready to go, but it didn’t have that software. I will bet you said, “Not very useful at all.” Now, that simple and insignificant program would seem to be the ONLY thing that would matter when trying to sell any units. I would argue that the intellectual property invested in the software is the most important portion of this widget and should then be able to command the highest percentage of the total widget price. As a programmer and designer I like to share my knowledge with others, usually free of charge, with the hopes that some day the favor will be returned. However, if I create something that no one else has, whether it’s a PLC program or a new style of screwdriver, I would hope my efforts would be well paid and not pilfered by those who don’t understand the value of knowledge. My customer learned the hard way that you need a big glass of water to swallow intellectual property.