Autodesk sues the Open Design Alliance

For years the Open Design Alliance (ODA) have been working towards providing an 'open' (i.e. freely distributable) set of libraries and tools capable of reading and writing the DWG file standard. DWG is the default standard within the AutoDesk suite of CAD/CAM applications (the most notable and ubiquitous being AutoCAD). On November 13th 2006 AutoDesk filed a Trademark infringement lawsuit against the Open Design Alliance, apparently around the use of digital watermarks within TrustedDWG files created by the ODA libraries.

TrustedDWG is a digital watermark present within AutoCAD 2007 that ensures the recipient of the file that it was created using genuine AutoDesk software. This functionality has two uses, the marketing reason of course is that it protects customers from the dangers of nasty external programmers who cannot program to save themselves and as a consequence try to destroy your data. This is the marketing reason and like all good marketing reasons it is a completely lame excuse that attempts to cover up real technical issues. The fact of the matter is AutoDesk software is in itself notoriously bad for file corruption. After over five years of tutoring CAD I've seen numerous file corruption incidents and all have involved purely 'genuine' AutoDesk software. Perhaps if AutoDesk engineers were allowed to spend more time on developing a file standard with internal verification systems and less on monopoly protecting digital fingerprints they would not need to worry about third party applications damaging user's data?

No the real reason behind TrustedDWG is to protect AutoDesk (not customers) through the creation of a trademarkable data firewall to protect their ever shrinking DWG monopoly. What is the need for this firewall? Unfortunately of late things have not gone too well for AutoDesk when it comes to AEC file formats. There was a day when they 'owned' the space, AutoDesk generated DWG was king and all other file formats and DWG wannabes were pretenders to the crown. Nowadays they face a different reality, the Open Design Alliance has produced a set of DWG libraries that let everybody manipulate DWG files on an equal footing, and just to rub salt into the wound Adobe has come out and started pitching the PDF format as a serious AEC data transfer medium. This must be causing some shivers down the spines of managers at AutoDesk who, like Microsoft in the operating system arena, have always relied on market share and proprietary standards to maintain an edge over competitors such as Bentley and Graphisoft.

The outcome of this lawsuit will be an interesting moment for AEC file formats. If the ODA is found to be in breach of AutoDesk's trademark then it will be a sad day for interoperability efforts and the industry at large. From a narrow minded perspective the ODA has breached the trademark and are guilty as charged. However in the larger legal and business sense the legality of the trademark itself must be brought into question. What AutoDesk have tried to achieve with TrustedDWG is apply anti-competitive measures to maintain an industry monopoly. Hopefully for the sake of the industry the ODA can prove that this is the case and will be allowed to continue shipping their fully compatible DWG libraries. Whilst DWG is not perfect by a long shot it is still one of the most widely used AEC file formats and the closest thing CAD software vendors have to an interoperable standard (ignoring for the moment Industry Foundation Classes).