[Beowulf] All Your BASH Are Belong To Us

Lux, Jim (337C) james.p.lux at jpl.nasa.gov
Thu Aug 11 10:40:35 PDT 2011

> -----Original Message-----
> From: Douglas Eadline [mailto:deadline at eadline.org]
> Sent: Thursday, August 11, 2011 9:59 AM
> To: Lux, Jim (337C)
> Cc: beowulf at beowulf.org
> Subject: RE: [Beowulf] All Your BASH Are Belong To Us
> I had a chance to read some of the depositions, really interesting
> and even embarrassing stuff. My guess is Atipa got angry when
> Bret and the other employees left to form a new company. They
> may have searched for ways to stop them and decided
> to go after them for what Atipa considered "trade secrets."
> A more or less traditional method to prevent ex-employees from
> stealing your secret sauce (as you explain below).
> The only problem was much of the "secrets" were developed
> and shared in an open environment. This may have been a
> surprise to those in charge and makes their claims
> a bit harder to swallow. (i.e. a fundamental misunderstanding
> of how trade secrets can be protected in an open source ecosystem).
> And, what I try to point out in the article, is that this
> open source ecosystem is what allowed hardware vendors to
> sell clusters in the first place.
> There is of course more to this case than I describe in the article.
> I'll post more as it progresses.
> --

Yes.. and a standard way to attempt to do a "non-compete" (which are typically illegal in California) is for the former employer to threaten the new employer (or customers of the spin-off) with the "theft of trade secrets" allegation.  Even if the allegation is unfounded, you have to spend time and money dealing with it (if you're the ex-employee) or it creates sufficient fear, uncertainty, and doubt (on the part of the customers of the ex-employee spin off).

I'm also not so naïve as to think that employees don't actually take trade secrets with them and use them, so it's not entirely improbable.

But, in a perfect world, there would be substantial sanctions for doing this kind of thing as a competitive maneuver.

Legal niceties aside, Doug brings up an interesting point about "trade secrets" or intellectual property in general...

You work at a job and become experienced and knowledgeable in a particular line of business.  How much of that is "general knowledge" (not protectable) and how much is "peculiar to the employer" (protectable)?  This is a pretty fuzzy thing.

A for instance.. say you leaned over to the next cube and asked someone for help formulating a particularly complex command line to grep a file.  The exact, character for character version of that command line probably belongs to the employer, but what about the knowledge you now have of how to do those kinds of searches?  What if your coworker had actually done the command line (in its exact form) at some other place and brought it with them?

Then, there's the practical details of getting approval from a (conservative) power-that-is.  Sure, you might have gotten it from open source, but will your corporate reviewer agree? Or, will they use the default "it's all proprietary unless proven otherwise, and we don't have time to look at your proof, and you don't have time  to be gathering the proof".

It's really depends on a corporate/organizational commitment to open source to institute processes to keep all this stuff straight.  (and we won't even get into "open source" vs "able to redistribute")

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