When exploring the issue of "who owns the code" for SCN's October cover story, the subject of independent programmers came up in several conversations. These professionals are of course the ones with a significant stake in this intellectual property debate, as the foundation of their business resides in the code they develop, and the increasing complexity of systems requires more resources for development of the unique modules they can truly call their own.
I spoke with Steven Greenblatt, president of Control Concepts and a founding member of the InfoComm Independent Programmers Council, about this issue and the increasing demand for programming services. He, like many others I spoke to, felt that the client is the true owner of the code -- with limitations. The code must only be used in the system for which it was commissioned, and it may not be replicated for use anywhere else, even within the client's own facility.
The issue has been settled to some extent, as most specifications today stipulate that the client receives a copy of the code upon a project's completion, but there are protections that can be made within this structure. "There are different ways that you can provide the code," Greenblatt said. "You can provide all the associated files, but within the source code, certain modules can be locked down. It doesn't prevent you from modifying the overall code, but you are still protecting parts of the intellectual property."
This practice is especially critical to the success of independent programmers, as they are frequently asked to develop modules for new equipment, and that development cannot necessarily be charged to a single project if the company plans to use it again. "We absorb those costs, and if we turn over that source code, it's like one of my programmers said -- it's like hiring a contractor and asking them to leave their tools behind after they're done with the project."
In the 12 years since Control Concepts was founded, the role of independent programmers has evolved from being a rare business model into a niche that cultivates long-term relationships with clients and consultants who seek a consistent user interface and operability for multiple systems, often over the course of many years. Thus the development costs they absorb can be spread over many jobs. "We're willing to put that time and spread that cost throughout the relationship," Greenblatt said. "From year to year we're able to leverage our investment, and our clients can as well. Compared with someone who would have to start from scratch if they're just coming in, we've already built up a library for them and can continue to use it at more cost-effective price points because there's been the relationship."
Long-term thinking appears to have carried Control Concepts through these challenging times. "From year to year we've always relied on the educational market, and this year that carried us through," Greenblatt noted. "We had a very good year on that side, we suffered in some other areas, but we had a good year on the educational side."
"Honestly for us in the very short term the trend has been looking much brighter," he continued. "In the past month or two the inquiries have increased, and there have been more opportunities out there. I'm not saying that our business has grown significantly, but we're seeing a lot more action. People are wanting to build relationships, they are giving us projects to consider, and we're seeing the beginnings of a trend to go in a positive direction. We've gotten busier, and over the year we've actually expanded in preparation for the recovery. We're optimistic."
A new hire this summer puts the number of Control Concepts programmers at five, and the company has bolstered its marketing efforts in the past year. "As much as you don't want there to be a downturn or a slow time, we used it to invest in marketing and in building the strength in the foundation of the company."
An improved website, a new blog, and various social networking efforts were part of the new strategy. "The thing is, we need to keep it up now, and that's the challenge," Greenblatt joked.
Reality, however, dictates that clients will definitely be looking for an online presence. "We are going to be catering to a new audience soon. Our potential clients are going to be growing up with all this stuff, so they're going to expect it. We're trying to sell technology, and hopefully we're using what we're selling."