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Make Pt1120
Inventor Mitch Altman explains why he open-sourced his TV-B-Gone kitMAKE volume 12.

As an inventor, I was taught that patents encouraged creativity and entrepreneurship. So, after finishing my first TV-B-Gone universal remote control prototype, I naturally called my brother the patent attorney, and together we filed a patent application.

Was that the best move?
TV-B-Gone remote controls are key chains with one button that make it fun to turn off almost any TV in public places. Oddly enough, within weeks of the first day of sales, the TV-B-Gone story appeared in major and minor newspaper, magazine, radio, and even TV outlets throughout the planet. It was a hit!

With this vast popularity, what might have happened if my packaging had not displayed the words: “Patent Pending”? Maybe it stopped some large companies from copying TV-B-Gone remotes, since selling copies would open them up for being sued once my patent was granted.

Would it be different if my product were open source?
I knew about open source, of course, but never considered it viable for hardware until going to my first hacker convention. There I met people who are very critical of patents and other forms of intellectual property law. They see these laws as obsolete and obnoxious. Individuals who want to hack cool ideas to improve upon them and share their results are often preyed upon and silenced by corporate lawyers protecting their clients’ patents. Paradoxically, this stifles the creativity that patents were supposed to encourage. This point of view was an eye-opener for me.

I decided to go for it. Together with Limor Fried (who makes lots of great kits), we’re making open source kits available so anyone can build and hack TV-B-Gone remote controls (look for an upcoming MAKE article about this). The firmware source code will be available online, as well as the board layout, lots of TV power codes, and all documentation.

Even though my project was not open source, I benefited from the open source community. People hacked TV-B-Gone remote controls in wonderfully creative ways. (Search online for “TV-B-Gone hacks” and you’ll get the idea.) These hacks increased the product’s popularity, resulting in more sales and more people around the world experiencing the satisfaction of turning off TVs. Also, since there was an army of TV-B-Goners who emailed me with ideas on how to improve upon my initial design, the next versions of TV-B-Gone remotes were considerably better than the original. Everything added up for me to look seriously at Creative Commons, a form of open source licensing.

The added buzz will likely also help sales of ready-made TV-B-Gone key chains, since not everyone wants to build their own. Everybody wins. In the words of my brother the patent lawyer, “The old way of patent law is to think: ‘This is mine and I’m going to keep it.’ This may have some advantages, but with open source you can share and bring more creative minds to the process. What’s really nice is that you don’t have to give up all your rights. With open source you can have the best of all worlds.”

Mitch Altman’s next products, based on the “Brain Machine” article he wrote for MAKE, Volume 10, are also open source.

Mkad4-2-1
You can check out the TV-B-Gone assembled and kit versions at the Maker Shed store.

Phillip Torrone

Editor at large – Make magazine. Creative director – Adafruit Industries, contributing editor – Popular Science. Previously: Founded – Hack-a-Day, how-to editor – Engadget, Director of product development – Fallon Worldwide, Technology Director – Braincraft.


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