Soapbox: Counterfeit Open Source Hardware — Knockoffs 101

Soapbox: Counterfeit Open Source Hardware — Knockoffs 101

Pt 699-1
Pictured above, a counterfeit Arduino

I’m a 15-minute walk from Canal Street, NYC, home of counterfeit everything. Men and women from around the world stand shoulder to shoulder shouting “Looyee-Vatton, DVD, Roll-Ex.” Tourists flock to this location looking for a cheap deal on a knockoff purse or watch — some tourists think they’re real, most just want a deal. When you build a brand that represents something of value, eventually you get knocked off. It’s a form of tax for making something sought after.

In my previous article “Soapbox: The {Unspoken} Rules of Open Source Hardware” I mentioned that we as hardware makers in the community do not knock each other off. It’s a fantastic unspoken rule that has allowed us all to improve and add value, not just copy.

Cloning ain’t cool
If your goal is just to make Arduino clones and not add code or hardware improvements, please go do something else instead. I see a few companies just make straight-up clones, make confusing names, and think it’s socially acceptable. It’s not. The beginners get confused as to what’s a real Arduino with the quality, service, and support, and most of the time the clones are crappy. I have a box of “Arduino killers” from all over the world. They’re not adding value in any way — it’s just someone being selfish. I get a dozen emails a week from parents or kids who bought a fake Arduino, and they’re upset it doesn’t work and that the eBay seller or fly-by-night store won’t help them. Most of all, get cloned enough and any reasonable person might just stop doing open software and hardware due to the support burden.

“Clone” in many of the the hardware circles I’m usually in means a knockoff, including the logo, etc. It’s made to fool people; however I think I will say “counterfeit” in addition to clone since there were a couple people on Slashdot that were confused about clone versus counterfeit. This might make it easier to explain exactly what I’m talking about.

So this week I’m going to outline some counterfeits to look out for when you’re looking for a deal on an Arduino or any other types of open source hardware.

Is counterfeit open source hardware a problem?

Not really, sales are only going up for everyone. Innovation is happening more, not less. Counterfeits, are however, being mentioned more and more at events and mailing lists as OSHW has become more high-profile. My prediction is that Arduino will hit 1 million units this year, so with that I think it’s reasonable to expect others to fairly and unfairly try to be part of a huge ecosystem. I’ve also personally seen it in customer support forums on various sites. Customers get what they think is a real Arduino, for example, and it turns out to be junk. The logo is there, the ™ (trademark) is there, but it’s just not a real Arduino. It doesn’t work, and the customer is out $20 or $30. Worst of all, they think learning electronics sucks.

Psychologically, I think it’s hard on makers out there who are worried about releasing their hardware as open source hardware. I’ve heard makers specifically say, “I don’t want to see my product cloned like the Arduino is cloned all the time.” That’s a danger: if we can’t encourage more makers to do OSHW, we’re sunk. But it’s not a problem, yet.

The reputable companies out there that supply most of the open source hardware simply do not do this. You’ll never see good companies just run boards and slap their logo on it, and you’ll not see them just run boards and not work with the maker. We don’t need to, since hardware is basically not-protectable, but we choose to work with each other. It’s not perfect, but it’s working out. So, new makers, here are companies I don’t think you’ll need to worry about: MAKE, SparkFun, Seeed, Freetronics, Adafruit, EMSL, MakerBot, Arduino, Parallax, Wayne and Layne, and the giant list (add yours in the comments) of companies making and selling OSHW. All these companies compete in some ways, but we’re all trying to make the best hardware and out-do each other. The people who work for these companies have pride in their work, and I truly believe they’re all working toward adding value, not just a straight-up copy. And none of them will be violating trademarks or copyrights — we can’t, we all work with each other in some way. We all know that if we step on toes and not raise each other up, this movement will blow apart.

Just to put it in context, RadioShack didn’t need to work with the Arduino team to stock their stores with a board that worked and looked like the Arduino, but they did. There’s more value in working with each other. The Arduino name has value, so RadioShack worked with the Arduino team to stock their stores with real Arduinos. If you’re considering working on open source hardware don’t let any fears of a big company coming in stop you; in fact the big companies are the ones who won’t be cloning/counterfeiting.

Examples of cloning/counterfeiting

The three examples I’m going to use are from Arduino, which covers almost all possible examples, and then I’ll show an Adafruit counterfeit since I help run Adafruit. Right now in open source hardware, Arduino, SparkFun, and Adafruit are getting cloned/counterfeited the most — that’s just my opinion from some data points I’ve collected — feel free to post up your observations. I’m sure there’s a research paper out there in the works. By counterfeit I mean using the trademark/logo, and for cloning I also mean running the boards, not sticking to license, but I’m focusing on the obvious logo/trademark violations.

Pt 699
Pictured above, a counterfeit Arduino

This is a fake Arduino. Usually found on eBay, Amazon sellers, and not your usual electronics shop. At this point I consider eBay one of the worst places to get Arduino-related electronics at this time for beginners — there’s no real punishment for counterfeiting electronics, and Arduino counterfeits are everywhere on eBay. I know the Arduino team is working on getting this stopped, but the biggest victims are the customers who are tricked into thinking they’re buying real Arduinos.

Pt 922
Pictured above, a counterfeit Arduino

After this seller was caught, they just Photoshopped out the Arduino™ logo, but the customer was still sent a fake Arduino.

Pictured above, a counterfeit Arduino
Here’s another: the first one said “Made in Italy” but now it says “Made in China.” It still uses the trademarked name Arduino, so not quite OK. The recent trend I noticed is “Made in Italy” has been removed, quickly. My guess is that the punishment for saying “Made in Italy” is far worse than putting Arduino™ on something.

Pictured above, a counterfeit Arduino

Pictured above, a counterfeit Arduino

Some sellers eventually rebrand their boards and remove Arduino, but they’re using “Uno” which is usually a no-no too, but it’s not a straight-up trademark/logo violation.

I picked these because they’re obviously bad; however, I’ve seen ones that look nearly identical to real Arduinos, and distributors who thought they were getting a “cheap deal from China with overflow” were fooled into buying fake Arduinos.

Ask the reseller where they got them from, ask for photos, front and back of the boards, to see if it’s a crappy knockoff, and if you’re fooled, do a charge-back and tell eBay/Paypal why. In an age where more people care how and where things are made, from organic foods to working conditions in factories, buying a real Arduino matters. If you want to support open source hardware and software, supporting the makers and buying them is the best way to do it.

Img 0909
Pictured above, a counterfeit Adafruit protoshield

A more subtle example, above, this is a counterfeit Adafruit Proto Shield. I’m not talking about just running our boards, removing credits, and following the license (happens a lot to this board) — I’m talking about using the Adafruit logo and name and selling an item as Adafruit (this one was sold on Amazon pretending to be Adafruit).

There are dozens of examples. I tried to pick out ones that would not identify the site, supplier, or pick on a company specifically. Why give them any attention?

What can you do?

If you’re a maker, stay calm and keep making. Don’t worry about knockoffs because, in fact, all the companies that are good work directly with the makers to sell/resell/license.

If you’re a maker, get a trademark. We can’t “protect” hardware besides a patent (and that’s not likely most of the time, too), so you’re best bet is to have a logo, a name, and a copyright. At Adafruit I’ve been able to remove any fake Adafruit stuff off eBay when needed. Arduino does that same — they just have more counterfeits to deal with.

There’s an Open Source Hardware Association that just formed. I’m going to guess that they’ll be helping companies and makers navigate all this. The board has people from top OSHW companies and it’s led by Alicia Gibb, who co-chaired the Open Hardware Summit. So I can say 100% that we’re all in good hands — they’re here to help us.

Buy real open source hardware from the makers. Support a store like MakerShed and pick up a real Arduino or compatible (and other open source hardware products).

Encourage people in your community to get the real deal from their favorite maker making and sharing hardware — it’s worth it.

Look at the giant mess that Google, Apple, Samsung, and everyone else is in when it comes to hardware — it’s war. From the start, the open source hardware community has assumed that we can’t protect our hardware designs. We knew all we had was our smarts and each other. What happens next is up to all of us. Even if you’re not a hardware designer you can help support the makers who have taken the risk, the risk to share their designs with all of us.

Post up in the comments with your thoughts. I’ll be around to answer as many questions as I can, too!

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