Own The Code

Own The Code

As Control Connects More Systems, Who Retains The Intellectual Property?

Despite tremendous progress, the process of AV systems integration still isn’t standard. Code is still complex and unique. If integrators can see, and perhaps use, work done by others, is it intellectual property theft?

The answer depends on whom you ask. Some professionals in the AV systems integration industry won’t give away their code. One disc to a client is fine, but some don’t want anyone—including the client’s in-house AV staff— poaching from their hard work.

There are myriad perspectives on the subject, and developments in the control and automation industry indicate that AV integrators will be touching more aspects of projects in the future, placing even more value on the code they create.

Jeff Kindig, AMX vice president, strategic marketing, thinks that in order to meet the changing market environment and grow, AV integrators definitely need to be thinking about ways to expand their offerings. Whether it’s vertical or horizontal expansion, owning more pieces of every AV integration project is essential. As such, “AMX has several new ‘pieces’ for integrators to consider,” Kindig said. “We have been proactively planning, engaging, acquiring, and designing products and services in anticipation of the need for new revenue streams to ensure integrators’ success.”

No AV control system is done after the equipment is installed and tested. It is at that point that monitoring and maintenance become paramount. This, in turn, represents a great opportunity for integrators to expand their offerings by staying in the picture while making money, too. Kindig noted that software applications like AMX Resource Management Suite are designed to not only help the end user keep track of it all but also give the integrator access via the internet to monitor the systems.

In a word—“proactive,” Kindig said. Now everyone can ensure the system stays up and running all day long. And that ongoing dialog provides constant opportunities for integrators to discuss upgrades and/or system enhancements.

Additionally, Kindig said that AMX’s digital signage technology acquisition is another example of a way for integrators to expand their offerings. Digital signage is a natural extension of an integrator’s existing AV offerings as well as an opening of access into new markets, which represents opportunities for growth.

In light of AV integrators expanding their offerings, Kindig agreed that the subject of who owns the code is volatile. As a manufacturer, he said that AMX has an excellent view of both sides of the issue: “Integrators are afraid to relinquish their intellectual property or custom programming code out of fear that end users will try to modify the code, or worse, take the code and run. Whether rational or not, the fear exists and needs to be addressed.”

However, one fundamental way to reduce this risk, and ensure a healthy relationship with end users, according to Kindig, is to build monthly service contracts into every proposal. “There is no single better way to maintain a positive end user relationship than with constant communication,” he said.

On the other hand, the end user is faced with anxiety around the possibility that the integrator will go out of business. One can appreciate this feeling when you consider the size of the typical investment an end user is making in technology. And it is also worth repeating that the end user’s anxiety could be reduced with the addition of a monthly service contract which would suggest a long-term relationship expectation.

Better than weighing in with an opinion on this critical debate, Kindig simply recapitulated what AMX does from the manufacturer’s perspective, regarding the issue of intellectual/ code property ownership. Like all manufacturers, AMX purchases custom products and services containing intellectual property regularly: “Our standard practice is to assume one of three options: 1.) leave the intellectual property rights with the author and only pay for the rights to use said property, 2.) place the intellectual property in escrow with the understanding that if the author should close down, we get the property, or 3.) pay some nominal amount above and beyond the labor to write said property and own it outright.

“From the integrator’s perspective, the best thing about the AMX approach to purchasing intellectual property is that the issue of intellectual property 1.) is up front and illustrates the integrator’s professionalism, 2.) is placed in the hands of the end user to make the decision, and 3.) is a great way to reduce the end user’s anxiety and gives the integrator the opportunity to include a monthly service contract.”

Crestron has also put systems in place to protect dealers and end users. “We provide certified control modules to dealers and programmers, and guarantee the functionality and reliability of those codes,” said Jeff Singer, Crestron’s marketing communications director. “We stand behind them [the codes and the dealers] and fully support them.”

Dealers and programmers don’t have to use the control modules Crestron provides; they can write their own or modify the modules. They, of course, own the code they write, Singer added. “We can and do fully support our dealers and guarantee our control modules (codes), but we always respect the relationship between the dealer and the end-user. Ultimately, it’s the dealer who is responsible for functionality of the system and the satisfaction of the end-user. That is why we also select our dealers carefully and invest so much in training and continuing professional education.”

Crestron has also established partnership programs for key markets and organizations. For these companies and organizations, Crestron provides training and direct access to its True Blue customer/technical support. For example, government and military installations (U.S. Navy, The Pentagon, NORAD/NORTHCOM) have unique security issues and need to be able to support and service their own systems. Dealers can’t necessarily get to a system installed on a battleship in the middle of the ocean, so Crestron enables these end-users to write their own code and service their systems. Sales always go through the dealer. Crestron never sells directly.

Singer said that Crestron also provides pre-sales system design and engineering services free for dealers and partners. This further ensures the system functionality and reliability. “‘Owning the code’ is far more layered and complex than just providing a piece of software or saying ‘you own it.’ Perhaps we don’t really want to say, ‘It’s yours.’ In effect, you’re then saying, ‘It’s your problem.’”

Is the real question, Singer asked, how do I know that my system will work, and what happens when it doesn’t or I want to change something? “You have to have the resources and commitment to back it up and make it happen,” he said.

For its part, Extron is enthusiastic about its new TouchLink touch panel product series, which utilizes “configuration” instead of “programming.” With fully configurable control systems, the question of who owns the code becomes a non-issue.

Extron’s director of product development, David Libman, enumerated the benefits afforded by Extron’s configurable approach. “Extron pioneered configurable control with MediaLink systems,” Libman said. TouchLink was introduced at InfoComm ’09 and is now shipping. TouchLink touchpanel control systems can be deployed using the same configuration tools as those used for MediaLink systems to simplify and streamline the integration process. “Configurable systems make sense for the majority of applications, and they save money and time,” Libman said.

With configurable control systems from Extron, configuration files are stored in the controller. Extron’s Global Configurator software enables the configuration files to be extracted whenever they are needed. There are no delays in getting modifications done and no learning curve for someone who has used the software previously. According to Libman, “Programming requires talented individuals whose skills are better reserved for high-end, complex systems.” He added that systems like TouchLink ensure much “faster deployment” and are easier to modify. Since configured systems can be predictably installed in less time, they offer cost savings for the end user and more reliable profits for the system integrator.

Extron has targeted specific environments for TouchLink with customizable touchscreen templates. “We analyzed the types of installations integrators work with and came up with templates that support the most common environments.” The Extron GUI Configurator for TouchLink panels includes ready-to-use templates created for popular AV system applications: single-display rooms, dual displays, two-way divisible rooms, multi-image systems, and videoconferencing. The templates simplify the development of the touchpanel layout, but users can also use the GUI Configurator software to create their own layout from scratch.

Margot Douaihy, Ph.D.

Margot Douaihy, Ph.D., is a lecturer at Franklin Pierce University.