Startup IP due diligence

Maat – goddess of truth

Startup investors know that they are mostly investing in just your IP.  So get your IP ownership situation under control before due diligence starts.

What does a startup investor get for his money? Startup companies are really just a bundle of information (usually ideas), people (founders, contractors, consultants), and things (tangible property, cash). A startup’s “things” will usually have minimal value. The people can walk out the door at any minute. So all that an investor may actually get for his money is some sort of ownership option in the information – the startup’s intellectual property (IP).  Prudent startup investors thus often conduct a fair amount of due diligence on this “IP”.

A startup’s IP can be viewed as being a mixture of alleged inventions (e.g. actual or potential patents), alleged copyrights, alleged trademarks, and alleged trade secrets.  At least some of this information may still only exist in the minds of the founders, contractors, and consultants. What is potentially real here, and what is not?

Sophisticated investors also know that according to our IP laws, unless actions are taken to protect the IP, the IP may either still belong to the individual that created it; or it may have become public domain.  Investors also know that startups often don’t fully understand IP law.  Has that intriguing startup already accidentally lost its key IP?  Was it missing essential IP to begin with?  This is why investors want IP due diligence studies.

Some ways that IP can be missing or lost include failure to obtain written IP assignment contracts, inadvertently placing IP into the public domain, and reliance on IP owned by someone else.

Failure to obtain written IP assignment contracts: IP assignment agreements should be obtained from anyone who has materially contributed to the company’s IP. Don’t assume that just because you paid for something, your company owns that IP — you often don’t. Try to do these IP assignments up front, because the longer you wait, the more leverage the other party has. For example, they could make unreasonable demands, or deny assignment altogether.

Inadvertently placing IP in the public domain: For patents, assume that anything you publish before a patent application is filed can be used against you, and be careful to update your patent filings as your technology advances. For trade secrets (i.e. important, not-generally known information which is often not patentable), take active steps to restrict access, require confidentiality agreements, and of course never publish this at all.

Reliance on IP owned by someone else: For patents, consider prior art searches to reduce the chances that you are infringing on other patents. For copyrights, check the status of your software licenses, and that you and your contractors are not copying other work. Avoid using names that might confuse customers from related companies, since this may cause trademark problems. For trade secrets, stay away from inside knowledge (not generally known in your field) that you or your contractors may have obtained from other companies.

Remember that from an IP due diligence perspective, if you can’t prove you did things right, the assumption will probably be that you didn’t.  So keep your documentation on file.

Open source software licenses for startups

BSD open source license
BSD open source license

Open source software is a wonderful thing.  The open source community has given us a gift pack animal that everyone from individual hackers to the largest companies in the world can ride.  However not all open source software licenses are alike. In particular, some of the most famous open source software comes with legal obligations that can be hazardous for startups.  So if you are doing a startup, resist the temptation to immediately grab your favorite open source software and start hacking.  Instead first take a bit of time to look that gift pack animal in the mouth.

What’s Gnu? Back in the 1980’s, Richard Stallman, who wrote the original and very influential Gnu OS open software license, had a deeply held opinion that in order to create an open software sharing community, it was necessary to “poison the well” for many commercial uses. This underlying hostility towards commercial applications is very evident in “The GNU manifesto”.

These “poison the well for commercial use” Gnu concepts in turn influenced the open source GPL (General Public License), which Linux and MySQL use; along with a number of other popular open source licenses.  Some of these open source license terms can negatively impact your ability to patent your software, as well as your other attempts to make your business profitable.

This problem scares investors.  Sophisticated investors now frequently include open source software questions as part of their routine, pre-funding, due diligence process. So yes, to avoid starving, this stuff matters.

Enter BSD: Not all open source software licenses have these problems. In the 1990’s other software experts decided that an open software sharing community could develop without also poisoning the well for commercial uses.  They developed the Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD) license (initially for their Unix-like operating system). The BSD license encourages sharing, but does not usually limit commercial use or patents.

Although BSD type open source licenses and software are not quite as famous as GPL open source software, a large number of well-respected and highly reliable BSD distributions are available.  Like Linux, there are different flavors of BSD for different applications. Look into FreeBSD for large scale servers, OpenBSD for secure applications, and NetBSD for smaller scale devices.  There are also BSD web servers (e.g. Nginx, httpd, Lighttpd), BSD databases, and many other BSD licensed open source applications.

Use your business model to pick your open source software (license), and not the other way around.  Google’s main revenue is from advertising.  They could afford to base Android on GPL licensed Linux. They have to make Android available for a free download, but given their business model, this isn’t a problem for them.  By contrast Apple has a business model based on selling closed devices.  Apple can’t survive with non-proprietary software. As a result, Apple chose to build iOS and OS X on a BSD foundation.  So pick the license that is best for your business (hint, think permissive or public domain).