Clone Spotting: How Counterfeits Hurt the Open Source Movement

Bare Conductive discovered their Touch Board microcontroller had been cloned. CEO Matt Johnson shares the experience.


When we found out that our Touch Board had been cloned we all immediately said “what!” quickly followed by “whoa…” summed up with “let me see!” After a few years of selling our Electric Paint and with our Touch Board just over a year old, we weren’t surprised, but we were certainly excited, frustrated, and curious. Crowded around the screen we all wondered what the clone would look like in person, where it came from, and whether it was any good. I hope you’re curious too.

I’m here to take you through the specifics of what separates a counterfeit piece of hardware from our Touch Board. If you’re interested in what cloning means to us as a company, then you should check out my piece on LinkedIn where I make the case that hardware really isn’t the hard part and that the clone is copying the wrong thing. If you want to jump to the ending, check out our handy “How to spot a clone” PDF guide (shown below). If you want to hear the whole story, it continues below the guide!


Click to enlarge as PDF.

A few months ago a super-user friend of ours, “Grumpy Mike,” spotted what he thought might be a clone on the forum. He was right. He had been helping a user with their project, but the board wasn’t responding as it should. After a quick diagnosis and some photos from the user we realised that this was a cloned board. We were both flattered and frustrated. Flattered because someone thought that we were worth copying and frustrated because they had created a counterfeit product. The “Touch Board” that we found looked like our product, used our trademarked logo, and most importantly claimed to have been manufactured by us — presenting a serious problem. This manufacturer hadn’t just used our work without giving credit, they were trying to convince our community that this was our product.

The Touch Board is an Open Hardware project. Open Hardware presents all of us with an amazing opportunity to freely iterate and prototype, but it requires us to give credit where it is due. You should improve on our design and adapt it to your needs. We provide the files that you need to get PCBs made and all of our code is on our GitHub. We’ve done a lot of hard work and you should benefit from it. We built the Touch Board on top of the hard work by Jim Lindblom, Bill Greiman, Bill Porter, Micheal Flagar, Arduino, Atmel, Freescale, and the support of our Kickstarter backers. Without them, the Touch Board wouldn’t exist.

But as should be obvious, Open Hardware doesn’t alleviate the legal frameworks around Intellectual Property or official registrations. In this respect, the manufacturer of the clone is operating illegally on two points: the use of our USB Vendor Identification (USB VID) and the use of our protected trademarks. The USB VID lets your computer know what is plugged into it, ensuring product reliability, safety, and traceability. USB VIDs are an investment into creating a complete product that operates to a global standard. The clone is lying to you and to your computer. 

The use of our USB VID is frustrating, but the use of our name and logo is infuriating. We’ve worked hard to build a community of users through consistent communication, continual product improvements, and honesty. When we got the clone in our hands we saw that the manufacturer had printed a modified version of our logo on the board. The use of our name is in direct violation of our trademarks. This is a serious problem for someone who buys one of these counterfeit boards. We want to help Makers and customers, but we can’t provide support for a product that we didn’t make.

So besides the USB VID and the trademark infringement, it’s basically just a cheap Touch Board right? Nope! Did you really think it would be? When we got a clone into our hands we honestly thought it looked pretty good at first. The solder mask was pretty crisp, the white was white, the black was black and there were no telltale signs of a re-work or manufacturing error. We could tell that the gold plating was dangerously thin, but the board was clearly made in a professional facility to a reasonable standard, minus some very important details. Missing out on these details meant that our clone didn’t work. No bootloader, a mis-configured MIDI link and suspect components meant that this board was never going to work (take a look at the guide for the nitty gritty).

Could a cloned board be cheaper and maintain the same functionality? Maybe, but it is unlikely. The Touch Board works because we designed it well and we don’t cut corners. With the power of an Arduino Leonardo, robust capacitive touch and proximity, an MP3 player, MIDI functionality, a microSD card holder, and a LiPo charger, the Touch Board is fully featured. That functionality doesn’t come cheap. Parts cost money, especially when the manufactures are being paid fair prices for their work. We want you to make great things and inspire each other. We don’t want you to cripple your projects with hardware you can’t rely on, made by people that don’t want to help. 

So what do we do? In short, we’ve just done it. The nature of contemporary manufacturing and sales is that it is hard (and prohibitively expensive) to control counterfeiting. We’ve sent letters from our attorneys and made formal take down requests, but our most powerful tool is to explain why counterfeiting is corrosive to companies, customers, and products. Now that we’ve done that, it is time to move on. Instead of worrying about someone copying our past, we think we should worry about creating our future.

Matt Johnson

Matt Johnson

Matt Johnson is CEO and co-founder of Bare Conductive Ltd, a London-based company developing electrically conductive materials and hardware. Matt is a bit of a designer and a bit of an engineer and most comfortable being split between the two.

  • solidusline

    And how exactly does this hurt the open source movement? I mean I can’t even download schematics for whatever this is, it is most certainly not opensource.

    • Bare Conductive

      Thanks for your thoughts! We’re certainly open source! Check out the link titled “the files” right under the second image. Hopefully you’ll find what you are looking for, including the schematic – Matt

    • sophiacamille

      I think the sentiment is that open source is about sharing, not stealing. Parading someone else’s design as your own goes against the spirit of open source, because it hurts the honest folks who genuinely contribute to the community.

    • talsit

      If a counterfit doesn’t work or is crappy, and people getting into it don’t know that it’s a crappy copy, they assume that OSHW is all crappy and can’t be trusted. A lot of very polished and excellently executed hardware gets dismissed because of the crappy image that bad counterfeits give.

      As other people say, creative derivatives, within the allowed license is allowed and encouraged, but passing off a crappy execution as the real thing hurts everyone.

      • Bare Conductive

        Couldn’t have said it better myself! – Matt

  • Ian White

    I wanted this to be a good article, because I’ve often wondered how counterfeit hardware, as opposed to spirited adaptations of open source designs, actually affects the companies that manufacture the originals. Unfortunately this author was unable to separate an opportunity to present a unique authoritative viewpoint from an opportunity to pitch their own product, and how clearly superior it is to a… knock off? Or maybe this is a paid article, which make the moral allegations even worse.

    Even if objectively some counterfeit products might be identical to the original, I’m not sure it’s rationally possible to consider a counterfeiter to be as honest, trustworthy, or detail oriented as the creators of the original.

    So why bother attacking the moral character of a counterfeiter? Counterfeiters, by definition, make cheap copies of existing products, so it’s no surprise they wouldn’t feel too terribly awful about “stealing” your $5,000 number (USB VID), cutting corners, and getting “dangerously” thin with some gold vias.

    But the article broke the thin veil right about the part mentioning, “with the power of a Leonardo, an MP3 player, voice activated robust touch LiPo amazing for a low low price order now!”

    No thanks.

    • Ian White

      “Open Hardware presents all of us with an amazing opportunity to freely iterate and prototype, but it requires us to give credit where it is due.”

      Due credit is a common clause in many, but not all, open source licenses. But again, adhering to any open source license generally presupposes personal value in things like respect, honor and community.

      I’m taking the time to respond because I think there’s actually substance underneath this superficial article. It takes courage to release long hours of hard work in a way that it instantly becomes trivial for counterfeiters (or any anyone who do not share the same values) to create copies that are potentially abhorrent to the original concept.

      I get a sense that it’s infuriating, and there’s an intense frustration over this thing that’s now out in the world that looks like the original, but lacks all the soul invested in the creation of the original.

      I don’t, however, believe any of that can be understood by comparing the original to a bad copy, and then following it up with the muscle-memory elevator pitch. I’d love to hear the real story next time.

      • Bare Conductive

        Great comments Ian. I really appreciate you taking the time to articulate your view so thoughtfully. I spent a lot of time thinking about how this story might be useful to others, either as insightful about us as a company, or the Touch Board as a product. In this piece I wanted to look at some of the technical details of the clone and the Touch Board, whereas in the LinkedIn piece (link at the top of the article) that I put up a few weeks ago I was talking more about company strategy. Just so we’re clear. This is my writing- not a paid article and that is not something I’d be OK with.

        This has just happened to us, so I’m not really sure how it effects us yet. If anything, the impact has been positive. We’ve learned a lot from what was copied, we have been reassured by friends and we have an interesting story that is generating discussion. The negative medium and long term effects are unclear. In the short term it has reinforced two obvious points. 1. We want to make sure that people don’t buy a product thinking its ours and then find themselves disappointed and frustrated. 2. We (obviously) can’t rest on what we’ve done and need to move onto the next thing. We have very little leverage beyond an active and thoughtful community passionately supporting what we do.

        I would be more than happy to give you more details, but to be honest, I’m not sure there is much more to give. But try me. I said that I was hoping to generate discussion, and you’ve done it. Awesome.

        Finally- as for the product pitch. When I was writing this I spent a lot of time thinking about the balance between explaining a product that I believe in vs. pitching it. If we met in person, you might accuse me of pitching it then too, not because I’m a rabid sales person, but because I love what I do and want to impart that enthusiasm. There were versions of this article that were far too focused on the product as an item for sale and others that didn’t recognise that we run a business. I was hoping to strike a balance. Fair enough if you think it’s too far on one side of the spectrum.

        Glad you see that there is substance here. Thanks again for your thoughts! Matt

  • JRocked

    That’s what you get for outsourcing to china. You get what you deserve.