#37 The Impropriety of Proprietary

This is post #37 of my #365 day series.
Photo by Lucas Gao on Unsplash

There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages. — Mark Twain

All technology these days has some iota of open source software (aka Open Source). For those not familiar with the concept, Open Source is software or code that’s been written by one or more people who have contributed it under some public license that lets other folks use the code for free. Contributing code in a public forum allows it to be reviewed and improved upon by a community. It also allows a community to avoid reinventing the wheel. Open Source has been the backbone of much of the innovations over the past three decades. It is not an exaggeration to say that the software and technological innovations that we build these days are because we can stand on the shoulders of the technological giants that came before us.

These days I hear the phrase “this is proprietary” a lot, but coming from a background in both software engineering and mergers and acquisitions, I’ve sifted through thousands of pages of agreements and even more lines of code to know the delusion of proprietary. People say proprietary to mean “I spent time and/or resources on this” but in reality it’s just leveraging technology that others have built.

“But Tony, by that thinking, nothing is proprietary.”

Not exactly. Similar to the standards for patents, “proprietary” should mean something created that is novel and hasn’t been done before (or at least done so publicly). These days, the use of “proprietary” is meant for gatekeeping. When someone says “proprietary” they are saying “I did this and now you can’t” which is misrepresentation at the very least and a deterrent to innovation at worst. It’s salesmanship in place of information.

We need to avoid usage of the term “proprietary” where it’s not applicable, because it takes away from how we develop software these days, as a community. It incentivizes a closed community and taking credit for the work that has been done by all the contributors of open source technologies. To be clear, you can build something unique and while it is not proprietary. An example is someone who makes a charcoal painting of Batman. The painting is unique and may be owned by the artist, but the subject matter is not proprietary. To say that the work is proprietary would be taking credit from Bob Kane and Bill Finger.

When someone says proprietary when referring to their work, usually it reflects either a lack of understanding around the development and/or an insecurity around the actual technology.

So the next time you hear someone say “proprietary” you should be thinking about whether it applies, or if that person actually has the technical knowledge to give it that label. Is it salesmanship or innovation?

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