Scality is among the most innovative startups out there, according to French Tech for 2019. For a company selling software-defined-storage, patents can be a double-edged sword.
Patents are a controversial animal in the software world. When software development started to become an industry, there was a debate among jurists about how to protect it. In the US, computer programs are literary works, therefore software is protected by the Copyright Act like architecture, art, and music. Unlike music though, software methods and algorithms can also be patented in some countries. Patents are often useful for startups to raise funds as they may help provide a tangible asset for evaluating a company.
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Like any other complex system, patents are also open to abuse, which is why they are perceived as not just useless but also negative in the open-source community. The futile attacks to GNOME Foundation and Cloudflare by non-practicing-entities is one of such reasons.
Every time the words Scality and patents get mentioned, the engineering team gets into debates, so we decided to interview our top brass: Giorgio Regni, CTO and Vianney Rancurel, head of research and development at Scality.As a startup competing with enormous companies like EMC/Dell and Netapp, we innovate to bring exponential value to the market Click To Tweet
* What is innovation for you?
Vianney Rancurel: There are two types of innovation: disruptive and incremental.
Innovation, in the sense of patent-based innovation, is when many attempts trying to solve one project result in making an unusual, non-obvious, and unique breakthrough. This particular disruptive breakthrough might be of crucial interest for the community at large and is disclosed in exchange for claims of ownership (and royalties/license fees).
But thankfully innovation is not only patent-related. A company incorporating a new open source technology in their products, e.g., what we do with Kubernetes for MetalK8s, is doing some kind of incremental innovation.
Some people (e.g., Elon Musk) sometimes give their disruptive innovation to the community for free.
Giorgio Regni: As a startup competing with enormous companies like EMC/Dell and Netapp, we innovate to bring exponential value to the market.
* Scality is a pure software company: Why does Scality feel the need to file any patent? What do you expect to get from these?
VR: We are a pure software company, but we also ship computers and network equipment equipped with software. The apparatus is the sum of all components. We also are in a (red-)hot market (I am talking about the file system market) and everybody else is patenting there, so it is a matter of doing like the others.
GR: There are 3 reasons:
- Proactive protection against the competition, not necessarily the big guys, but similar-sized startups who have proven in the past not to hesitate to copy others. This is a big problem of open source in general: How do you protect millions of dollars invested in R&D?
- Defensive portfolio against the bigger competitors, so that they think twice before filing a suit against us.
- Valuation for acquirers; that’s, unfortunately, the truth of our market.
* The company is multinational with a foothold in Europe, the US and Japan. When you file a patent, which jurisdiction do you prefer or file first or trust it will be most valuable?
GR: Always US first, then there’s a process to take the US patent and register a local patent in Europe and Japan that works very well in that direction.
* You mention the need to protect investment and Scality produces and distributes software with and without open source licenses. What do you think that open source has different from a startup that doesn’t produce any open source?
GR: My stance with Scality is to develop open-source first as it has many benefits like helping recruit talent, getting more pairs of eyes, finding new use cases, etc…
Now in an enterprise tech startup like us, we put tens of millions of dollars in R&D upfront and our selling motion is towards a handful of customers with a minimum of 18 months [in our] sales cycle. This is very different than a startup with a hosted or Saas product or with a consumer-oriented app. for example, where the delta between investment and sales is not in years but measured in months. I see the need to time when to open source the code [versus] when the tech becomes mainstream.