Reverse Geocache Puzzlebox Controversy

Should patented, patent-pending, or copyrighted projects NOT be in MAKE? This is the question that has been raised around Mikal Hart‘s Reverse Geocache Puzzlebox project from MAKE Volume 25. It’s a clever project. Where geocaching is a game of high-tech hide and seek game, with players using GPS to find a hidden “cache” of trinkets, Hart’s Reverse Geocache Puzzlebox is a box that will only open in one place on Earth. Mikal made the first one as a wedding present for a friend (the guy who’d turned him onto Arduino). We thought it was a cool project and published it in the magazine. The controversy comes from the fact that Mikal copyrighted trademarked the name “Reverse Geocache” and his technology is patent pending. Some folks took exception to locked down technology being covered in MAKE (although Mikal does encourage and help people make the boxes for personal, non-commercial use). The following letter we received, from reader Bryan Hanks, expresses this negative reaction. A conversation broke out on our internal email list. Some of these comments are reproduced below and express various thoughts on the issue. Update: And after that, a letter from Mikal Hart.

What is your take on this? What do you think MAKE’s editorial position should be?

Bryan Hanks writes:

I’m writing to express my disappointment at the decision to include the “Reverse Geocache Puzzlebox” in a recent MAKE.

As a long-time subscriber (since Volume 6!), I’ve always enjoyed the high-quality articles and projects I’ve found within MAKE’s pages. Doing the work you all do is truly commendable. Working in the print media industry myself, I understand the pressures to get the latest issue out the door on time while retaining a high level of quality.

That being said, I would hope that you would consider some basic guidelines for projects featured in MAKE’s pages, namely refusing to publish PATENTED, COPYRIGHTED projects, such as the “Reverse Geocache
Puzzlebox.” How are we supposed to build on this? How are we supposed to expand on it? Locking down ideas is antithetical to the maker spirit.

All the best to the author, Mr. Hart, and a notice: I’ve coined the term “Inverse Geocache” and will clean-room build a better mousetrap.

To whit:

“Inverse Geocache” by Bryan Hanks is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

I would also like to purchase a special gift for whichever editor approved this article (I’m serious!). Please send me his/her name and mailing address. Here is what I’m going to send, as a reminder:

Thank you, and happy making.

Mark Frauenfelder responds:

He raises an interesting point. I’ve been getting more and more questions from makers who want to patent some of their creations for commercial reasons. In one way, this shows that makers are getting more serious and powerful. On the other, it does suck that others can’t improve on this project.

But the idea of reverse geocache itself can’t be patented, it’s just the software used here that’s protected, so people *can* improve on the idea in general.

Phillip Torrone chimes in:

At first glance, it doesn’t matter. Anyone can inspect and improve upon a patented or copyrighted project or product for their own personal use. You just can’t sell it or call it “reverse geocache,” and you need to credit the maker.

This is from the maker’s site:

Reverse Geocache™ is a trademark of Mikal Hart.
These instructions and the sample source code and licensed under the terms of the Creative Commons “Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike” license, version 3.0, which grants the limited right to use or modify it NON-COMMERCIALLY, so long as appropriate credit is given and derivative works are licensed under the identical terms. See here for license details. The Reverse Geocache Puzzle and some of the technologies described here are patent pending.

So, you cannot sell your own version called “reverse geocache,” and who knows what patents are pending, but this shouldn’t stop anyone from building their own and sharing improvements.

The maker (Mikal) is using the open source, commercial-use allowed, Arduino. It’s unclear what (and if) he’s actually patenting, but if someone is really worried about patents, there’s always this:

For “amusement, to satisfy idle curiosity, or for strictly philosophical inquiry.”

Has there been a single case of someone getting sued because they improved upon a copyrighted or trademarked project in MAKE? The answer: “No.”

Paul Spinrad adds:

Mikal really isn’t being too protective here. Making one for your own use is totally OK, and modifying the plain-vanilla version of his software, which he’s distributing open source, is also OK. He wants people to make these boxes for themselves and their loved ones, and wants to help them, but what he doesn’t want is for people to make them to sell for profit — basically just like a noncommercial share with credit CC license. I actually think he struck a great balance!

The other thing he wants is to trademark the phrase “Reverse Geocache.” I’m less sympathetic to this, but also think it’s a pretty trivial issue. Yes, if some manufacturer wants to license his patent, they’ll need a protected name for the product, so I guess he’s planning ahead. But it’s just a name, and I don’t think it’s catchier than “Inverse Geocache,” or whatever else.

After this piece was posted, we got a response from the creator of the Reverse Geocache puzzle, Mikal Hart:

I really enjoyed writing the Reverse Geocache article and appreciate the support from the MAKE staff and readers on this interesting question. As someone who has spent hundreds of hours helping people all over the world build and debug wonderful puzzle box projects, I admit being a little disappointed at the suggestion that my work is somehow “contrary to the maker spirit”.

MAKE is about celebrating and sharing inventive magic. It’s been marching proudly under this banner for years without any apparent bias against inventors who aspire to retain certain rights. And I’m glad for that. When I dive into each new issue, I want to swim in the entire creative ocean, as it were, and not just paddle around in “special” areas someone has roped off for me.

Does the “If you can’t open it, you don’t own it!” motto even apply here? I invite uncertain readers to follow my instructions and build their own puzzle boxes. It’s a unique and intensely personal experience. After
they’ve soldered that last resistor and tweaked those last few lines of code, most people feel an unusually close attachment to this project. And when that special someone finally opens the box and discovers that treasure you’ve hidden for her, well, I assure you, you’ll feel you own it unlike anything you’ve owned before.

Mikal Hart

So, tell us what YOU think.


Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. And he has a new best-of writing collection and “lazy man’s memoir,” called Borg Like Me.

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