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Intellectual property rights mean you own your CAD data, but will you always be able to open and read it, let alone use it?

There are only two things in life said to be a certainty - death and taxes.

Why then do most of us simply assume that the CAD data we create in applications will be accessible by us at any time in the future?

Autodesk has recently launched AutoCAD 2004, which has a new file format with compression and the ability to password-protect the data inside. It is also alleged by The Open DWG Alliance that the 2004 files are encrypted; thus restricting the existing user base to authorised Autodesk product use only.Naturally, Autodesk has hotly contested these allegations, which are in direct contradiction to its marketing message: 'Share with ease.'

Taking a user's perspective, how does a developer encrypting the file format affect your future accessibility to your data? From a legal point of view, copyright in the software (including the algorithms for encryption and compression) is owned by the developer. The user of the software uses it under terms of a licence. If the licence to use any software terminates, the user will no longer be entitled to run it and, therefore, will no longer be able to lawfully 'open' the files he or she created without infringing the copyright in the software. It would be a similar case if you did not own the land in front of your house; by having no rights to cross the land you would not be able to get to your own front door.

So does the CAD user have any 'rights' in the CAD data locked in the encrypted file? The answer is yes. He or she has copyright in the material entered but cannot access that data without the permission (licence) of the software owner. Unless the licence makes specific mention of post-termination rights to access the files (which Autodesk does not), or a court could be persuaded to imply that right, the user's data is effectively held to ransom by the software company. If the user didn't like the original licence terms on offer (which no one ever reads anyway) he or she shouldn't have entered into the agreement in the first place.

So how can you increase your certainty of being able to access your data in the future? First, keep a paper copy of all drawings issued. Second, keep an electronic copy of all drawings issued in an independent file format such as PDF or HPGL.

Both of the above will assist with access but neither really solves the problem, as they are only useful for accessing drawings for review or printing. They would be useless should you wish to make changes or use the drawings as a base for extension or decommission by the owner/operator.

Indeed, if you wish to access your data in an editable format, thus reducing future duplication through redrawing, you will need to start with a file format that contains editable geometry, such as DXF. However, DXF has its own problems and will only store geometric descriptions of data, ie lines, arcs and circles.

It cannot contain the 'extended' data, which is becoming more commonplace in CAD use as designers want their drawings to 'talk' to each other and 'talk' to the design team.

So if DXF is not up to the task, what is? Well, a few people got together in 1995 to launch the International Alliance for Interoperability (IAI). Their collective aim was to specify and develop a mechanism for transporting and translating CAD data between applications without losing any of the extended information associated with the geometry.

Unfortunately for consumers, the IAI has been slow to gain momentum.

This is possibly because of its 'committee-like' organisation, and because some of the larger CAD developers do not want a tool that makes it easy for their customers to share information with no loss of depth or intelligence.

That could open the door for the users to look around and select another CAD application as their editing tool of choice - breaking the chains that tie them to any one system.

In a recent online debate between Philip G Bernstein of Autodesk and Keith Bentley of Bentley Systems, two quite opposing views were discussed. * At one point Keith Bentley stated: 'Bentley explicitly disclaims ownership of file content' This was reinforced by Bentley's announcement earlier this year that it was opening up its new DGN file format to make DGN data accessible to any third-party developers who wished to capitalise upon it. When Bentley asked Bernstein if Autodesk's 'encryption' of the 2004 file format suggested otherwise, Bernstein replied: 'The fact that the AutoCAD 2004 file format is encrypted does not change the owner's right to use it.'

While it may not change your rights to access the data it certainly changes your ability to access it. Were Bernstein's comments an admission of encryption or a merely a slip of the tongue under pressure? In any event, the state of the 2004 DWG file remains uncertain and no independent body has 'proven' beyond all reasonable doubt that it is encrypted, nor has Autodesk proven otherwise.

To be able to store your data in a format with future certainty of access, you should implement an improved multi-format archive procedure for all completed projects. And if you wish to retain the 'extended' data together with the geometry, then perhaps the open DGN file format will prove to be a slightly safer bet. At the very least, as a customer you may choose to vote with your chequebook and refuse to upgrade to 2004 from earlier, 'open' versions of AutoCAD.

Joe Croser is the managing partner at CroserConsulting (www. croser. net) and Robert Downing is a senior solicitor at law firm Dorsey & Whitney (www. dorseylaw. com).

* Quotations reproduced courtesy of Jerry Laiserin editor of The LaiserinLetter (www. laiserin. com).

For more details on the debate visit: www. laiserin. com/features/ bim/index. php

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