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Renowned Software Developer Tackles Open-Source Legalities

VisiCalc co-creator Dan Bricklin has taken on one of the thorniest issues for companies this decade: navigating the legal landscape of open-source software.
Dan Bricklin, the software developer who invented the PC spreadsheet in the '70s, battled Lotus Development Corp. for market share in the '80s, and launched a pen computing startup in the '90s, has taken on one of the thorniest issues for companies this decade: navigating the legal landscape of open-source software.

But his latest product won't be a piece of code. Instead, Bricklin plans to announce at the [email protected] conference in Scottsdale, Ariz., Tuesday that he's producing a corporate training DVD for programmers tentatively titled, "Copyright, Open Source, and Why a Lawyer is a Developer's Friend."

During an interview in Scottsdale Monday, Bricklin said the video, which he hopes to sell to corporate legal departments starting in April, will introduce programmers to copyright issues and open-source software-development concepts, and teach them how to work with company lawyers. He hit on the idea after consulting with companies about open-source programming. "Copying code has been part of software development forever, but we need to do a better job of documenting the code we copy," Bricklin says.

In the wake of SCO Group's lawsuits against IBM and other companies for allegedly violating its Unix patents, and the court-ordered shutdown of the online song-trading Web site Napster four years ago, developers need to better track the origins of their software and understand their companies' policies about reusing code written by others. "We were much looser in the old days," Bricklin says.

Bricklin, who as a Harvard MBA student in the late '70s co-wrote VisiCalc, generally considered the first electronic spreadsheet and a catalyst for sales of PCs to businesses, is now president of Software Garden Inc., a tech consulting company he formed in 1985.

VisiCalc's ability to give users immediate, interactive feedback on their calculations made it more attractive than slower, mainframe-based systems, and helped legitimize personal systems such as the Apple II and IBM PC for business buyers. But after a legal dispute with the software's publisher and competition from Lotus' 1-2-3 spreadsheet, the program disappeared from the market in the mid-'80s.

In addition to Software Garden and VisiCalc developer Software Arts Inc., Bricklin founded Slate Corp. in 1990, a developer of pen computing apps, and Trellix Corp. in 1995.

Bricklin says consulting to companies about open-source software development led him to realize that developers need to better understand intellectual-property issues--and take them more seriously. One reason is that software companies such as Microsoft and Adobe Systems legally supply sample code for developers to copy in their own applications, but the restrictions on using it are often difficult for programmers to decipher.

"It's often very complicated. But if you do it right, there's a wealth of software out there for you to share," says Bricklin. Not using that available code can hinder developers, causing them to miss deadlines by not taking advantage of code that's already been quality tested.

During an appearance at [email protected] scheduled for Tuesday morning, Bricklin plans to show a 90-second clip from the upcoming DVD, which he's making himself. He also writes about it in a blog entry posted on his Web site Monday afternoon.