A culture of ethics in open source hardware?

Phillip Torrone of Adafruit and Make wrote a piece on the culture of ethics in open source hardware:

I spend most of my days working on open source hardware in some way, and I wanted to talk about some of the {unspoken} rules we all, well, many, seem to follow. Why? Because the core group of people who’ve been doing what we’ve collectively called “open source hardware” know each other — we’re friends, we overlap and compete in some ways, but we all work towards a common goal: sharing our work to make the world a better place and to stand on each others shoulders and not each others toes : )

He makes 11 points. We added some comments to our favorites below the fold. What do you think?

  • We pay each other royalties, even though we don’t need to

We try to extend this beyond royalties for a hardware design. Dangerous Prototypes is supported by an amazing community, and we try to share royalties directly with community members who make major contributions. We’re not a funding power house, but we try to be generous with free hardware, PCBs, and sometimes even cash, when someone makes a major contribution.

  • We credit each other, a lot

Which makes sense on the internet where search ranking and hits rule. A link isn’t just a kindness, it is an asset with real monetary value. Just ask the SEO spammers. Feed and water your Google.

  • Naming: be different. It’s better to be unique

With all due respect to everyone with a -duino project, the Arduino crew actually complained about all the over use of -duino at the Open Hardware Summit 2011. We were surprised. They prefer that you come up with your own name.

  • We actually do open source hardware
  • Basing your project/product off open source? Open source it
  • Build your business around open source hardware

Yup. Open source is trendy, and grifters gotta grift. We’ve noticed more and more closed source software-as-service and APIs that appeal to open source for marketing hype. They hope to crowd source content so they can get their next round of funding. Vampires.

pt calls out Kickstart projects that promise to go open source as a prize for funding. That’s a new grift we’ve noticed too. In general we’ll only cover a Kickstart project if the source files are released, otherwise it’s just a slashvertisement with no geek value.

  • Cloning ain’t cool

It’s not, except sometimes it is. It certainly doesn’t feel good to see someone selling your project while you get to support their users for free. However, in our experience it can arguably increase exposure and/or cover ground you wouldn’t.

Example 1 – Our Bus Pirate competes with SparkFun’s volume discount and global distribution network. Is that awesome? No. However, we wouldn’t be here without the global exposure their own-version* provides.

*We originally used “knock-off” which our style guide defines as an affectionate hacker term for hardware that that is functionally similar, but uses different parts and PCB. After several comments we feel it gave the wrong impression and distracts from the emphasis on embracing 3rd party manufacture of projects. It was not intended to disparage SparkFun in any way, in the same way ‘hack’ doesn’ refer to illegal activity. When we started developing the Bus Pirate as a commercial project Nate at SparkFun insisted, against our protests, on paying a royalty for the Bus Pirates they sell. As we stated above, we wouldn’t be here without the global exposure SparkFun’s Bus Pirate provides. We sincerely apologize for any misunderstanding.

Example 2 – A small Chinese company sells Bus Pirates in China and on eBay. Would we ever reach small distributors in China? Probably not. Is it worth our time to troll eBay for a couple sales? Hell no!

In both these cases clones have helped Dangerous Prototypes to become a global brand. We’ve learned to accept clones, even if we aren’t always super sure it’s a net positive.

*We originally used knock-off, which

  • Support your customers

New hardware clones or knock-off make us sweat bullets. It means in addition to our own frequent bugs, we have to deal with a whole new manufacturer’s problems. Ugh!

  • Respect the designer’s wishes

When we talk to designers struggling with the decision to release things as open source, we are often ask about someone ‘stealing’ their design. Here’s our three points, the last one is usually omitted for the sake of decorum.

First, who is going to do it? None of the big open source players ever do anything without a designer’s permission. If a big company wants the design it is a negligible cost to re-engineer it with cheap labor. Who is going to do it?

Second, should you be so lucky? Look at all the Kickstart projects where people struggle and fail to get a project off the ground. A manufacturer picks up your project, markets it, and spreads your name at no cost to you? Score! Now position yourself to take advantage of that. Use it as positive or negative PR to get your own funding, muscle them into a royalty, or market new and updated projects. It won’t be easy, but it’s a massive opportunity.

Third, your design is probably not a magic bean. It will not grow into a pile of cash when exposed to the light of day. Nothing at Dangerous Prototypes is terrifically original, it’s just an expression of our unique take on common design problems. We agree with Seeed Studio, electronic can be art. It is the design sensibility, support, upgrades – community – that sets a design apart. There’s room in open hardware for multiple solutions to the same problem that express different understandings. Each will appeal to different people, and variety is good. There are lots of infrared widgets out there, but the USB IR Toy is a solution-in-progress that is unique to us, and for some folks it’s a good solution too.

  • When we finally get an open source hardware foundation, we’ll all support it.

Open hardware licensing is just a formality for us. We want to make cool hardware, share it with very few restrictions, and sell it if possible. We don’t really care about licenses, but support the people who do.

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  1. Hi,

    A query, im making an arduino board based on Adafruit’s atmega32u4 breakoutboard [http://ladyada.net/products/atmega32u4breakout/] i changed some of the components to those that are readily available here in my location. Im hoping to sell 10 them and donate 5 to schools.

    i do have adafruit in my boards design.

    What else should i have to do?

  2. hey philip! that’s awesome AND it’s a great example of oshw working to make the world a better place. all you need to really do is credit adafruit and also post up your files (attribution/share-alike). drop me an email if you need any help with this, i’d love to write about this as well. pt@adafruit.com

    1. Hi pt! some of my friends/coworkers and some students already showed interest – im currently trying to squeeze in 2 of these in a 5cmx5cm board by seeed. if i have 10 5×5 boards [20 individual boards!] then i still have 5 for myself to dispose hehe. Ill ask some of my buds to donate parts too so that i could assemble them as soon as the boards get fabbed.

      im also trying to get hold of where to buy cheaper parts – there is RS Philippines though i havent tried buying from them – but from friends experience they are a little pricey but realiable source

      Yup ill be posting the schematic and board files.

  3. Do you think that if someone clones your device and expects you to support it, they should, at the very least, send you a bunch of free units so you can try to replicate bugs and help fix them, and better support their product?

    1. Hey Andrew,

      It depends on the arrangement made before hand.

      I’d be super ticked off if a company started selling a knock-off of one of our projects and the first contact was an offer of 10-20 bucks of free hardware so I can spend hours and days supporting their users for free. It seems super presumptuous, and I’d be really temped shame them on the blog and avoid supporting their users in the forum. Not saying I would, just that it would be highly tempting.

      Another possible recourse for a small open hardware designer is to recommend a return for every problem with a grey-market unit. Apologize for the broken hardware and ask them to return it for a replacement, every time. You don’t have to do the debug :)

  4. I’m not so sure about “licensing”… that kind of grants legitimacy to the “work once, get paid forever” model, and that’s the opposite of what we’re about.

    We stand on the shoulders of giants… or whatever… all of us… and this assumption that money should be paid for the privilege just adds sludge to the mixture. The hell with that. The hell with anything at all, resembling the idea that “information can be owned and controlled”.

    Simple rule of thumb: “if you can’t innovate faster than a competitor, you shouldn’t be in the game”… because that IS the game. Think of how the fashion industry operates – it’s fast. There’s no IP to speak of, so there is an ultra-rapid turnover of ideas… usually driven by “wow-factor” innovations seen at fashion-shows, that help drive demand for staples.

    Whether we like it or not, this is what we’re headed for – and as we have a dramatic edge over conglomerates in terms of maneuverability… it’s what we should be embracing. We should like it… I know I do.

    So the hell with licenses.

    Crediting/Name-checking is a win-win-win practice… it’s a good thing to do even for selfish reasons… but “selfish” isn’t really the world we live in I don’t think.

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