Intellectual Property

Open-Source Hardware

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Fascinating piece in the November Wired by Clive Thompson about attempting to extend open-source arguments and practices to, not just software ideas, but hardware ideas. The piece neither elides the difficulties in keeping economically afloat by giving away, if not the store, at least the blueprints for the store; nor does it pretend that old-fashioned intellectual property defense is the only way for an innovator to prosper.

Thompson mostly profiles the Italian circuit board company Arduino. The piece is complicated and thickly reported, but some choice excerpts that give you the shape of the big ideas therein:

In a loosely coordinated movement, dozens of hardware inventors around the world have begun to freely publish their specs. There are open source synthesizers, MP3 players, guitar amplifiers, and even high-end voice-over-IP phone routers. You can buy an open source mobile phone to talk on, and a chip company called VIA has just released an open source laptop: Anyone can take its design, fabricate it, and start selling the notebooks.

[Arduino chief Massimo] Banzi admits that the concept does sound insane. After all, Arduino assumes a lot of risk; the group spends thousands of dollars to make a batch of boards. "If you publish all your files, in one sense, you're inviting the competition to come and kill you," [Banzi] says, shrugging.

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[T]he Arduino inventors decided to start a business, but with a twist: The designs would stay open source. Because copyright law—which governs open source software—doesn't apply to hardware, they decided to use a Creative Commons license called Attribution-Share Alike. It governs the "reference designs" for the Arduino board, the files you'd send to a fabrication plant to have the boards made.

Under the Creative Commons license, anyone is allowed to produce copies of the board, to redesign it, or even to sell boards that copy the design. You don't need to pay a license fee to the Arduino team or even ask permission. However, if you republish the reference design, you have to credit the original Arduino group. And if you tweak or change the board, your new design must use the same or a similar Creative Commons license to ensure that new versions of the Arduino board will be equally free and open.

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This is the unacknowledged fact underpinning the open hardware movement: Hardware is already open. Even when inventors try to keep the guts of their gadgets secret, they can't. So why not actively open those designs and try to profit from the inevitable?

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[H]ow do you make money in a world of open hardware?

Right now, open design pioneers tend to follow one of two economic models. The first is not to worry about selling much hardware but instead to sell your expertise as the inventor. If anyone can manufacture a device, then the most efficient manufacturer will do so at the best price. Fine, let them. It'll ensure your contraption is widely distributed. Because you're the inventor, though, the community of users will inevitably congregate around you….[T]he serious income [for Arduino] comes from clients who want to build devices based on the board and who hire the founders as consultants.

…Then there's the second model for making money off open source hardware: Sell your device but try to keep ahead of the competition. This isn't as hard as it seems. Last year, Arduino noticed that copycat versions of its board made in China and Taiwan were being sold online. Yet sales through the main Arduino store were still increasing dramatically….Partly because many Asian knockoffs were poor quality, rife with soldering errors and flimsy pin connections. The competition created a larger market but also ensured that the original makers stayed a generation ahead of the cheap imitations. Merely having the specs for a product doesn't mean a copycat will make a quality item.

The piece also profiles some people applying these ideas to innovations in humidity monitors and VOIP networks for the third world, and speculates as to how and why even giant commercial enterprises will have to make peace and alliances with open source hardware communities.

Douglas Clement from our March 2003 issue questioned whether intellectual property law was necessary for innovation.