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Protecting Your Intellectual Property

The AV industry is waking up to the broad issue of intellectual property (IP) ? the tangible and occasionally intangible products of designers of all stripes at AV systems solutions providers. Potentially encompassing everything from software to shop drawings to project design specifications, intellectual property is emerging as the essence of the ?product? that industry players are selling. As such, it's increasingly being recognized as something worthy of protection, or at least appreciated for its value and wisely managed.

When integrator Technical Services Audio Visual recently landed a contract to design a system for a university client's campus building, a roadblock stopped project planning in its tracks. The “keys” to the software another AV systems integrator had used to build an earlier system that the client wanted to essentially duplicate in a new venue weren't accessible.

Credit: Ian McFarlane

“The contractor who preceded us never provided the client with the software source code,” says Pete Dugas, president of the Athens, GA, company. “We explained that they either had to get the source code or pay us to build the system again from the ground up.”

To the budget-minded client's relief, Dugas' company examined the contract for the prior job and found that the source code used to the design the control system was, in fact, the university's property. “The other integrator hadn't supplied the source code, but the contract documents that were drawn up by the designer the university hired for the original install stated the integrator was to supply the source code to the university. So we had to coach the client on how to get it from the integrator.”

The client, Dugas says, wasn't the only one surprised. The integrator, too, wasn't aware it was contractually obliged to provide the code, he says.

Ownership questions

Similar misunderstandings, which can bear the seeds of potentially contentious disputes, are becoming more commonplace in the pro AV industry. As AV systems designers, consultants, and integrators use proprietary software programs to build increasingly complex and unique solutions, questions about who owns them and who gets to use them linger.

Indeed, the AV industry is waking up to the broad issue of intellectual property (IP) – the tangible and occasionally intangible products of designers of all stripes at AV systems solutions providers. Potentially encompassing everything from software to shop drawings to project design specifications, intellectual property is emerging as the essence of the “product” that industry players are selling. As such, it's increasingly being recognized as something worthy of protection, or at least appreciated for its value and wisely managed.

The industry's two major trade associations are devoting more resources to shedding light on the matter. Both the National Systems Contractors Association and InfoComm International staged educational sessions on IP at recent trade shows. The latter organized two roundtable meetings on the topic in New York and Chicago built around a new attorney-prepared “white paper” outlining the various types of IP and how they can be protected.

The importance of identifying and protecting IP is a message that's starting to resonate with more integrators like Technology Providers Inc., Chandler, AZ. IP in all its forms, especially custom software critical to implementing custom solutions, is the essence of a modern integrator's business, says company president Ralph Cruz.

“Ultimately, what's going to set integrators apart or make them unique is the ability to produce IP,” he says. “When you have 10 integrators all after the same jobs with the same access to component vendors, what's unique is the service and the IP – the minds and people who embody those minds – that can be provided. We value it significantly.”

But of all the IP possessed by systems integrators, software that allows multiple systems components to work in tandem and yields the critical control interface is the IP asset garnering the most attention — and for good reason. Merely the most visible part of an AV solution, much AV hardware, notes Bill Nattress, a programming specialist and senior associate in the Chicago office of systems designer Shen Milsom & Wilke, is a “boat anchor until software is brought to bear.”



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