It is the simplest of observations that often provokes the most profound innovations. For Blue Spike, Inc. the inciting incident that launched the company was the theft and reclamation of the founder's personal property.
Founder Scott Moskowitz thought he had lost a ruler he was using for his graphic design class at a North Miami Beach junior high school. He had, however, taken the precaution of marking one edge of the ruler with indelible red ink to assure that his title to this instrument would be obvious to all, the nascent business mind at work even then.
Moskowitz recovered the ruler when a friend, the hawk-eyed Michelle Honig, spied it in the possession of the would-be thief, another student at Moskowitz's school. The perpetrator had attempted to obscure the red signature by scribbling over it in pencil - but enough of it remained visible to clue righteous Michelle onto its rightful owner. Michelle confronted the thief, condemned his perfidy and reclaimed the ruler for her classmate.
That event taught founder Scott Moskowitz an important lesson that he sums up to this day with the maxim, "People lie, cheat and steal." Before he made his way to college at Penn, well wise to the ways of a world populated by the light-fingered and the forgetful, Moskowitz refined his primitive proprietorship-assertion scheme to protect a collection of more than a hundred CDs he was bringing with him to the school.
Moskowitz took a fine pen knife and carefully etched his initials - SM or SAM - into the inner ring of the discs and at the edge of the jewel cases for all his music CDs. It was small, but visible enough so that it could be located by Moskowitz when he wanted to reclaim the misplaced CD in the hurly-burly of dorm life.
"I wouldn't tell everyone what I did but whenever I saw a disk in a dorm hall or a friend's place and if I saw my initials on a CD, I would take it back. I basically signed my property in a way that only I could tell my signature was there. It wasn't a strong secret - but it would be enough to tell me if something was mine," Moskowitz says.
In effect, Moskowitz was hiding his title to the CDs in plain sight. That concept has been most fully developed in the mathematical craft of steganography, a subset of cryptography but, in actuality, the earliest form of this mathematical discipline. (It was used by ancient Chinese and Greek armies to obscure military intelligence. From the Greek, it roughly translates into covered-up writing.) Moskowitz became a fast and dedicated student of the steganographic arts and fused it with his understanding of finance and retail market-making - hard-earned knowledge acquired in corporate and entrepreneurial forays in the US and Japan.
In 1995, Moskowitz filed his very first patents relating to digital watermarking, at the time little more than an academic curiosity with maybe a handful of practitioners who understood what it meant and the applications it could actuate. Today, Blue Spike stands astride an estate of more than a dozen patents related to digital watermarking, it is marketing software that animates the patented innovations, and it is leading industrial discussions on the development of digital watermarking standards for protecting recorded music.
Suddenly, though actually after years of slogging patents and hammering code, Blue Spike has found itself at the nexus of one of the pivotal technologies of the information age, one that will provide the labelling and tagging that is necessary for online commerce to operate as efficiently as its offline cohort - and to enjoy some of the unique efficiencies of the digital marketplace. Industry groups are developing standards for digital watermarking; captains of industry are calling for Congress to require that players be equipped to read digital watermarks to control illegal copying; and, no surpise, digital watermarking is regularly discussed in newspapers as well as trade and business magazines.
In retrospect, it seems that Michelle's act of policing was both inspirational - and prescient. As she recognized Moskowitz's personal mark to establish responsiblity for his drafting instrument, Blue Spike's digital watermarking is going to be the marking scheme by which the universe of digital objects will be assigned to their rightful owners and copyright holders. Whither the Muse? Occasionally, and in the past, Moskowitz bumped into her in the neighborhood. Still funny. Still protective. "If she caught anyone with my stuff stolen today - she would do the same thing now as she did then," Moskowitz says.