Is One of Our Open Source Heroes Going Closed Source?

3D Printing & Imaging
Is One of Our Open Source Heroes Going Closed Source?

This article (and its follow-up) is an opinion piece by Rob Giseburt, an active member of the 3DP open source community. It does not necessarily represent the opinions of MAKE. Its purpose is not to prematurely punish MakerBot for their recent decisions and future directions in which they may (or may not) be headed, but rather, to get a reasonable dialog going about the import of such changes to open source hardware in general and 3DP in specific. – Gareth Branwyn

The consumer-level 3D printing industry has grown very rapidly over the last couple of years. This is, in part, due to many of the players being completely open source and freely sharing their advancements, slightly leveling the playing field against the 800lb gorillas in the industry that have held the industry hostage with patent portfolios for decades.

Recently, however, there was an odd little hiccup. A new player on the field by the name of Tangibot arrived, not with a new printer or even an innovative new derivative, but with a near-exact clone of arguably the most prominent printer in the market: the MakerBot Replicator. The primary selling point was a lower price, supposedly due primarily to it being made in China vs the US.

This was met with mixed feelings from the community. This was partly because they were attempting to crowd fund using Kickstarter, and had mentioned the MakerBot trademark a few too many times. Others were outraged by the concept of it being made in China. Many thought is was great that it would become cheaper, regardless.

But a few seemed to really see the argument here: can a hardware company grow and thrive as completely open source?

MakerBot has always been very clear about their open source roots. Cofounded by Zach “Hoeken” Smith, one of the founding members of the RepRap Research Foundation, Adam Mayer, and MAKE alumni Bre Pettis, the company has been key to DIY 3D printing, which is, in turn, something that draws a lot of people to the maker movement. To date, their devices have been completely open source hardware and software with the electronics based on that of the Arduino.

The Arduino being open source is what allowed MakerBot to base their electronics on the Arduino, and prompted the community, myself included, to contribute freely to MakerBot’s success. MakerBot and its community’s contributions dovetailed with those of the general DIY 3D printing community, including those from the RepRap project, and has created an unprecedented free exchange of innovation in designing 3D printers. This has resulted in freely available plans for industrial-quality CNC devices that are made of and consume materials that are readily available and consumer-safe.

This freely shared, patent-free innovation has recreated, in a few years, what has been locked up in patents and sold at hundreds of times the retail price for decades. This has truly democratized 3D printing, and helped spark off desktop manufacturing and all of the promise that it holds.

However, because of this cloning issue, a few have wondered what would happen if MakerBot were no longer open source. On solidsmack JF Brandon said, “If [Tangibot’s funding] is successful, MakerBot will have to revise their Open Source policy and become closed source. This would be a real shame – they are one of the only 3D printing companies that is so gung-ho on free unfettered Open Source 3D printing.” Tangibot did not reach its $500,000 goal.

So, for the sake of argument, what if MakerBot did start to close the source to their devices? What sort of harm, if any, would that have on the DIY 3D printing and maker communities? We could just as easily ask these same questions about Arduino, Ultimaker, or half a dozen other open source hardware companies.

There are a few closed source companies that are associated with the maker movement. It is unlikely that the black box tools that they provide could be — even if free — any more than mere utilitarian tools. As a maker, you can’t “remix” or learn from the technology inside these tools, and attempts to remake them could become a legal entanglement at least. Actually, they are specifically attempting to prevent that behavior by being closed source. These companies aren’t really in the “maker convention,” but are instead mere vendors at the door that are selling — sometimes for the price of “free” — interesting doodads. By no longer sharing their innovation with the community, MakerBot would no longer be a part of the convention either. They could no longer truly be a part of the maker community, but would instead become another company offering us their trinkets, with the understanding that we’re not to peer inside them or try to improve on or duplicate them.

A company also cannot be partially open source. They can utilize open source in a closed source project, with great legal care. But you cannot, as a company, expect to have an outward ethic of sharing your innovation with the world, yet still have key technologies in one hand behind your back. In the PC world there are several vendors that have proven this repeatedly. Even though they have clearly used a large amount of open source software in their operation systems, it hasn’t prevented them from building layers of patent-protected intellectual property on top of it, and then starting epic legal battles with competitors.

Another possible approach to being partially open source would be to only release the source for products that have been retired or the sales have matured. This is no different than selling a black-box trinket. It is no more open to the customer’s that use it than a fully closed source product. That is actually worse than people waiting for a patent to expire. At least with patents the plans are revealed. A product that’s closed source until it’s end-of-life is, essentially, only of archeological value. Looking for value there would be like dumpster-diving.

Obviously, the pressures on a company, once they reach a certain point in their growth, to do whatever they can to prevent or eliminate competition in order to maximize profits is immense. Even MakerBot, born of the culture of sharing and leveling of the playing field, cannot be immune from these pressures. They still have employees that, even though they have a heroic ethic of democratization, still need an income to put food on the table. We can only hope that CEO, cofounder, and maker-hero Bre Pettis can resist these pressures and see past them to the long game.

Competition is inevitable, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a supply-chain guru cloning your devices and using your own plans, or a massive company like HP throwing lawyers and patents at you, you will have to compete, and you will always have someone stealing your ideas. If they chose the closed path, then they need to start a patent portfolio and play litigious hardball with the companies that have held these technologies hostage for decades, and hire as many lawyers as engineers in order to compete.

If, however, they chose the open source path, they’ll still need lawyers, no doubt, but at least the law is in the favor of any technology that is a derivative of theirs is fair game for them to use as well. Actually, as Make senior editor Phillip Torrone was quoted as saying to Wired in response to Tangibot’s cloning the Replicator, “Being able to copy or ‘clone’ open source and open source hardware (OSHW) is not only OK, it’s celebrated. OSHW has a goal of not only having good designs shared, but the desire to add value to the world when it’s shared and improvements are made.”

There are many many Arduino clones. Most of them are accepted by the community as providing additional value to the community, with the accepted rule that they are not to pretend that they are Arduino and use the trademarked name without permission. This rule has undoubtedly been broken, but it doesn’t appear to be on a scale that harms the sale of Arduinos.

MakerBot is obviously creating with a much more complex device, with equally more complex supply-chain issues and tech support overhead. There is no doubt a need to remain competitive and profitable. After all, they have to be able to afford to put food on the employees’ tables along with continuing R&D to stay ahead of the competition. These are very real problems that have complex solutions.

But it doesn’t appear that being closed source and using patents and licensing will free any company from competitors, but instead will only open them to a different form of competitors. A form of competitor that really, truly is only there for the profit, and doesn’t have the ethics of open and community driven innovation.

And, after all, the target market of MakerBot, along with many open source hardware companies, is the full spectrum of makers. Not just makers of competing 3D printers, but makers of all sorts: artists, industrial designers, engineers, high-school teachers, biology professors, electrical engineers, architects, etc. Makers don’t want black-box trinkets. They want something that, if they want to open it up and learn how it works, they can. They can also, as Massimo Banzi said, scratch their own itch and solve whatever problem they are having, furthering the technology for the entire community.

Discuss this article with the rest of the community on our Discord server!

Software Engineer by day, 3D printing enthusiast all the time.

View more articles by Rob Giseburt


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