Soapbox: The {Unspoken} Rules of Open Source Hardware

Soapbox: The {Unspoken} Rules of Open Source Hardware

I truly believe open source hardware is here to stay. It has established itself as a great community, a great effort, and for many, a great business. I spend most of my days working on open source hardware in some way, and I wanted to talk about some of the {unspoken} rules we all, well, many, seem to follow. Why? Because the core group of people who’ve been doing what we’ve collectively called “open source hardware” know each other — we’re friends, we overlap and compete in some ways, but we all work towards a common goal: sharing our work to make the world a better place and to stand on each other’s shoulders and not each other’s toes : ) I’m sure there will be some folks who agree strongly with what I’ve outlined as “unspoken rules,” others, I hope will completely disagree with many points too. That’s great, it’s time we start this conversation.

OK, let’s go!

We pay each other royalties, even though we don’t need to.

As odd as it sounds, we pay each other. I can be really specific. I introduced Mitch Altman, inventor of the TV-B-Gone, to Limor Fried. I wanted to convince him to work with her on an open source hardware kit version. That was almost five years ago and it’s worked out great. Mitch travels the world doing workshops while MAKE, Adafruit, and many others sell his kit, and he gets paid a royalty that he came up with that makes sense. Behind the scenes, most/all open source hardware designers pay a royalty to each other when they make and design together. Do they need to? Technically no, but we all do. When kit makers talk to me about how we can work together, I tell them this story and encourage them to ask Mitch what it’s like working with Limor, getting royalties, and how it all works. If you look at many of the product pages on Sparkfun, they do this too. Actions speak the loudest for this unspoken rule : )

We credit each other, a lot.

What does the open source maker usually want? Just to be credited properly. This usually isn’t an issue since the community generally looks out for each other, but there are examples that pop up from time to time of it just being unclear who made what. It’s not malice, it usually just forgetfulness. There are a lot of giant companies taking open source ideas and making them commercial products (that’s always going to happen), but the open source hardware community is a community. We credit each other. Even if you don’t like someone, it’s easy and actually fun to credit each other. “Hey, I used this code/hardware, improved it, here it is and here’s who originally made it.” When we get general ideas, we usually say things like “This was inspired by.” Giant companies don’t or can’t do this, but the open source hardware world can. A big example is how you’d never see Samsung say they were “inspired” by anything Apple does, but it’s pretty clear they were. In open source, you’ll see makers gladly say where they first saw an idea.

Naming: be different. It’s better to be unique.

In general, we try to avoid naming our projects in a confusing way. Trademarks are one of the few ways we can “intellectually protect” hardware (schematics are not copyrightable) so we focus on branding things and building a product that people know comes from a specific company or person. Here’s an example: I think there was a period where many people and companies made Arduino-like boards and stuck “-uino” at the end or even just called it Arduino, but I see that as ending soon, or at least we won’t see it as much. The “Boarduino” for example was ok’ed by the Arduino team. This was before a million *uinos came out later. More and more makers are creating new and unique Arduino-compatibles and calling them something completely non-“uino” named. We’ll say things like Arduino-compatible, but we won’t call them Arduino. Arduino, the name, belongs to the Arduino team. From their USB vendor ID to the name and logo on the board, it’s theirs. If you’re trying to fool people by using someone else’s name, stop it. There are some examples of this well-known actual rule (trademark law) and unspoken rule getting broken. I think that will go away over time as companies and people see there’s more value in creating your own name for your own products. I’ll have a bigger article about trademarks and USB vendor IDs in the future, but this is a start.

We actually do open source hardware.

This is an easy one. If you’re calling it open source hardware, release the files: schematic, source, BOM, and code. All under an open license. Don’t hide it. Don’t say you need to sign an NDA and attempt to obfuscate. Don’t be difficult. If you’re trying to be tricky, just don’t do open source hardware. A new thing I’ve seen, and I don’t think meets the spirit of openness: don’t use open source hardware or software as a “prize” if your Kickstarter gets funded. It doesn’t work like that. Open source hardware isn’t a marketing term — it means something specific. We’re doing open source hardware because we want to, not because we want to trick people. The only issue that usually comes up for us is time, as we manage hundreds of projects all the time, so not every file is updated instantly. I know for a fact that I haven’t had time to instantly upload every single Eagle file for breakout boards to GitHub. Those are not complex so no one cares, but I care, so I’m going to try my best to make sure they’re all up. I’m moving everything to GitHub to make this easier on me (and everyone).

Basing your project/product off open source? Open source it.

This is another one we all generally follow. Let’s say you make something based on an Arduino, which is under an open license — yeah, you need to do the same. Once in a while I’ll see an Arduino clone that someone has made and they’ve put under a non-commercial license. When I ask why, it’s usually something like, “Well, I don’t want to be cloned — like the Arduino is all the time.” Sometimes the maker changes the license after the project makes the rounds to an open one. It’s my opinion that if you do an Arduino shield it should be open source hardware too. However, I don’t think everyone agrees with this point.

Code and designs: add value.

It’s not valuable for the community to fork code and just change a name or something and call it your own. You need to add more value than a logo or naming change. Many open source hardware companies have really expensive teams making and sharing open source code and hardware. Just changing a couple of things so you can ship your own thing is really frowned upon. It happens, but it’s pretty rare. However, this is one of the unspoken rules that will likely need to be talked about openly. It’s one thing to copy and improve, it’s another to just copy and sell. I’m a big fan of copy, improve, and republish, but it’s rarely done because it’s hard work. When people fork just so they can change one comment or make it sound like they are the original authors, and they don’t add any value, it’s a support burden for the original makers too. Non-customers are confused — things aren’t synced up. It can be a mess.

For open source hardware to work, we all need to support the original authors when we can and we all need to talk about the rules of copying and republishing changes. We want to avoid people or companies building their products/projects off the open source software/hardware communities and then closing it off. Sharing needs to go both ways, always.

Cloning ain’t cool.

I’m going to continue to use Arduino as an example since it’s the poster child of open source hardware. 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.

Support your customers.

If you’re doing open source hardware because you want to make an “Arduino clone” thinking you can just pass the hard work of customer support over to the community, that’s not fair to anyone. Spend the time and resources to create tutorials, forums, and support your customers. I’m using Arduino again as an example since I see customers purchasing “cloned” Arduinos but expecting support from the Arduino support team because it says Arduino. Open source is a way to make things better, not to just outsource support to someone else. Join in, support your customers, and they’ll reward you!

Build your business around open source hardware.

If you’re going to require that someone does open source for your newly venture-funded online open source hardware social network or whatever, you gotta do some open source yourself. If you’re celebrating open source and attempting to make money around it, you gotta put value back in too. I’ll give you a good example: let’s say you want to make the “Dropbox” of open source hardware. Cool! However, if part of your product design is requiring customers to have all their files under an open source hardware license, you need to do that too and open up your own stuff. Otherwise, what’s the point? Obviously there’s marketing value in the word “open,” and for small startups we’ve seen that many want to take advantage of that. Want your new company to be part of the open ecosystem? It’s worth something, so you need to do the same. I’m not saying you need to give it ALL away, but you need to do something to show you value open source enough to do it yourself.

Respect the designer’s wishes.

We can email each other and talk when needed. Sometimes the maker of an open source hardware project might have a request if you’re going to clone their hardware; for example, “Hey, don’t use this to kill puppies, OK?” Now, while open source really doesn’t stop anyone from making a puppy grinder from your open source CNC, I think it’s totally fair for the designer to ask you not to do that if you start to go down that path. There’s been a few times I’ve seen open source hardware projects get hijacked a little, and the author was concerned about its direction. A simple polite request actually works: “Hey, I know you can do anything with my stuff, but I just don’t want to see a puppy grinder.” This is a tricky one because the hardcore licensing people hate to hear this. They think it means the license was weak or something — it’s not, it’s a strength that we’re a community who can talk to each other when needed. And 100 years from now, anyone reading this today will likely be departed, so I think it’s important that we try as a community to respect the designer who gave their work to the world. It’s also helpful for the designer to include a bit of text in a Readme for the license or on a project page that lists some ideal uses. Of course it won’t always be followed, but at least there’s some framework and intentions spelled out. Despite what we all think, we are humans that get emotional about our works, it’s not a weakness, this too is a strength.

When we finally get an open source hardware foundation, we’ll all support it.

Eventually there will be an effort led by great people to make a foundation that may talk about many of the things I just went over. They’ll be there to serve us, the community! I’m not the right person to be on a foundation (in case you’re wondering, I want to actually run an open source hardware company). Also, I probably have too many opinions to be effective at this point.

We can all do a couple of things well with the time we have, but a foundation for something as important as open source hardware would be too much for me to take on. But here’s what I can do: I’ll financially support a foundation, and I’m sure many/all/most of the open source hardware companies will too. I make a living from open source hardware, so when a foundation comes along I’ll give them money. I’ll encourage others to do the same. I’ve donated to the Open Hardware Summit, so this is an easy one. Right now, I think I can get the people I work with at Adafruit to donate about $400 per employee x 25 people — that works out to $10,000 from my day job. This is something that’s important, so I’m going to try to make it happen. I’m hoping other companies can do this on an employee basis too, since that’s a really fair way for companies of all sizes to help — from the individual making 25 kits in their kitchen to the 100-person factory floor.

Those are the biggies, and I’m hoping there will be a lively discussion about all of this. I should also say these are just my opinions. I don’t speak for the open source hardware movement — that would be impossible. When I say “we,” I mean it as what I think is the general stuff the open source hardware community tends to do. I’ve also talked with many open source hardware makers over the years and for this specific article. I’m sure many of us have accidentally broken some of these unspoken rules before, and hopefully we fixed it quickly : ) I also realize when I write stuff like this I’ll be held to some tough scrutiny. We’ll see if these types of articles are helpful. Not everything I work on will be open source, but if it says open source I’ll always work hard to make sure it fits the technical and social norms we all expect. OK, post away in the comments!

109 thoughts on “Soapbox: The {Unspoken} Rules of Open Source Hardware

  1. The {Unspoken} Rules of Open Source Hardware @make « adafruit industries blog says:

    […] latest at MAKE and it’s a big topic that’s he’s taking on – Soapbox: The {Unspoken} Rules of Open Source Hardware. Please post up comments on MAKE’s site! And we’ll spend some time on this on a future […]

  2. David Lang (@davidtlang) says:

    Thanks Phil. A lot of these items are things we’ve been thinking really hard about with OpenROV. Admittedly, we’re a little nervous. We’re committed to open hardware because we think it’s the right thing to do, but for folks who aren’t necessarily in the circle of friends it can be intimidating.

    This post helps bring a lot of our unspoken fears to the forefront. In the end, I think it’s about having more good stuff and less bad stuff.

    I’d be interested to hear more about the TV B Gone royalty structure, but I’d also like to hear what Chris A & Jordi are doing to compensate innovation withn their community. Surely, many of the folks on their forums have contributed to different aspects of their design, but it’s not clear how/if there is any compensation for that. It’s one thing to charge for the bundling of the kit, but what if someone in the community designs a mount that makes it really easy to attach a specific camera to the ArduCopter. It makes logical sense they should try and distribute through the DIY Drones store, instead of creating their own community around their mount.

    Maybe they’re just multiple and continual kickstarter projects that get supported and promoted by the community. Maybe they establish a marketplace to encourage exchange like Thingaverse. Maybe there isn’t any compensation. I really don’t know, but it’s something we want to get right from the beginning.

    1. Phillip Torrone says:

      thanks david! i’m so glad you posted, this was my goal – to get makers to start talking about this.

      re: the tv-g-gone (and other kits with mitch) royalty structure. mitch and limor worked together on the kit(s), they both know the bill-of-materials, costs, etc. based on what the kit maker wants, that cost is added. it might be more for retail sales vs wholesale since the margins are different. the end result is a kit designer who gets exactly what they want based on the actual costs for the kit maker. after that, the kit designer gets a check every 4 months.

  3. nrp says:

    “I’ll have a bigger article about trademarks and USB vendor IDs in the future, but this is a start.”

    I look forward to reading this. USB VIDs are a problem that I’m personally running into on an open source device that I’m working on.

    The USB IF has cracked down on people splitting VIDs or selling individual PIDs, making it extremely difficult to distribute small runs of open source USB devices. It’s hard to justify spending $2,000 on a unique ID for a run of 100 units of an otherwise inexpensive product, when that can go into tools or parts to improve the thing instead. The only realistic choice is to rip off someone else’s VID, which has many unfortunate and obvious repercussions.

    1. Phillip Torrone says:

      hi nrp! yes, the USB VID is about to become a big deal for many people. the USB VID is owned by a person/company. for example, i have one for adafruit, and only we can use it. arduino also has a USB VID and only they can use it.

      however, i’m pretty sure there are already people using arduino’s USB VID. this is a no-no. if you look at big examples, palm tried to use apple’s and that did not work of course.

      “Unauthorized use of assigned or unassigned USB Vendor ID Numbers and associated Product ID Numbers are strictly prohibited.”

      “Under the Policy, Palm may only use the single Vendor ID issued to Palm for Palm’s usage,” wrote Traci Donnell, the forum’s executive director, in rendering her decision. “Usage of any other company’s Vendor ID is specifically precluded. Palm’s expressed intent to use Apple’s VID appears to violate the attached policy.”


      apple said that PALM cannot call their device APPLE or IPOD. apple is correct in this case.

      back to your current dilema, you may be able to seek permission to partner with someone to use their USB VID, you can also get your own, it’s $2,000 but it’s yours.

      you could release your code and the person using it would need to use their own USB VID.

      using someone else’s isn’t an option, it’s their property and trademarked name in most cases.

      i don’t have a solution for this one yet, but i am thinking about it a lot.

      1. Andrew Stone says:

        Hi Phillip,

        You forgot a key line in the quote. Here it is in full:
        Tricky tricky, maybe too tricky? When you apply for a USB Vendor ID, you sign a form (PDF link) that explicitly states that:

        Unauthorized use of assigned or unassigned USB Vendor ID Numbers and associated Product ID Numbers are strictly prohibited.

        So don’t sign the form! :-) And if you did all they can do is “take away” your VID — but how can you “take away” a number? They can’t very easily sell it to someone else (at least not for the full $2k because who’d want a number with an unknown number of PIDs in current use)?

        What if web sites hosted by Windows Server looked at the browser identification and refused to provide services to Firefox running on Linux?

        Personally, I think that if you support OSHW and OSS then in general you should support VID/PID spoofing IF a system is refusing to service alternate VID/PIDs. The USB consortium is essentially trying to become a trademark organization — trying enforce monopolies on certain numbers within a certain context — without any power to do so.

      2. Phillip Torrone says:

        i don’t think “VID/PID spoofing” is a realistic solution to suggest to businesses that are trying to do their best to follow the usual rules like trademarks, etc.

      3. nrp says:

        Andrew, I think it’s less a matter of legality than reputation and respect for the shared ID space. For reputation, the average hacker like me can probably get away with spoofing an ID, but if I ever wanted to start a company to sell a higher volume product, I imagine the USB IF or other standards orgs would be wary to deal with me.

        For the ID space, if everyone starts using VIDs that they believe are unused or spoofs VID/PID pairs of products that behave similarly, it sort of poisons the well. There will inevitably be collisions that cause driver and application issues and cause a lot of pain for developers and end users.

        This is the root of the problem. What the USB IF is doing makes sense. They have a limited ID space used by hundreds of thousands of unique products and hundreds of millions of total devices in use, and they have to do what they can to keep it working properly. On the other hand, USB is ubiquitous, inexpensive, and extremely useful, so it is inevitable that there are more than 65,535 entities in the world interested in using it. Additionally, there is a huge long tail of them with interesting ideas and without $2,000 to drop on a VID.

        So, spoofing and camping on “unclaimed” VIDs is happening and will continue to happen is long is there is no other release valve for the demand for USB device development. The USB IF either doesn’t understand this, doesn’t care about this, or can’t think of a reasonable solution to it.

        I might as well let the cat out of the bag. My plan for this is to launch a Kickstarter for the project I’m working on and buy a VID with part of the funds raised. Distributing PIDs is prohibited, but Dean Camera of the LUFA library had an interesting workaround for this. Instead of distributing the PID, pick a VID/PID pair for open use, and disambiguate using a third field, the Release Number in the Device Descriptor. While Dean suggests just picking a value for testing and not releasing anything using it, I think one could post a web form where unique Release Numbers could be reserved, allowing devices and firmwares to be distributed without worries of collision. Whether this still violates the USB IF’s terms is probably up to lawyers to decide, but it’s worth a try.

      4. Andrew Stone says:

        I agree that its playing hardball. But that’s what happens whenever a vibrant community is excluded from a necessary resource. As I said, if the pricing was reasonable I think the OSHW community should and would be reasonable as well.

        If you take it for granted that spoofing will happen, then by limiting spoofing to within 0xF055, we actually keep the larger space unpolluted. In the end, the USB consortium might actually thank us for it…

        @nrp: You are trying doing the engineer thing; trying to trick a system of rules into letting you do what the creator of those rules doesn’t want you to do. But engineers always forget that the creator is not bound by its own rules — it can change them. 1 year ago when I was trying to find a VID/PID for my Lightuino LED driver, the “trick” was to sell a product (like a USB software stack for 5 bucks) with a VID included. Now it sounds like you can’t do that so you are diving into yet another field. You need to recognise that the consortium has no actual authority here and do your own thing. Of course, what you CAN’T do is stick that trademarked USB logo on your box.

        Sometimes rules need to be broken to shake things up. For example, by producing a competing product to the Lilypad because its frankly been around too long without a technology update.

      5. Pierce Nichols says:

        Would it be legit for Adafruit and other large OSHW companies to hand out PIDs for products they distribute?

      6. Phillip Torrone says:

        Pierce Nichols you wrote – “Would it be legit for Adafruit and other large OSHW companies to hand out PIDs for products they distribute?”

        from what i understand (and have tried to ask many times) – that’s not allowed. however, this is second hand information – i have not been successful getting a good contact that understands the oshw/maker space but i will continue to try. if anyone knows anyone that can assist us please let me know too! one of the many other reasons for this article was to raise awareness of the the USB VID stuff.

      7. macegr says:

        Andrew Stone and nrp: If I understand you correctly, you’re saying that people are spoofing USB vendor IDs already. It’s certainly something I’ve done too, but not on an actual product. However, the idea of picking a few unused vendor IDs and “squatting” as a community on those IDs is an idea that greatly amuses me. Once people start using those IDs in any significant number, it’s pretty much going to stay that way forever. It would be interesting to see the community decide on something like that and go with it. There are plenty of device IDs to reduce the chance of a collision, and non-stupid USB hosts (as in, not Windows) don’t really need to depend on the VID/PID anyway. I believe the only thing a VID gives you is the permission to put the official USB logo on your retail box.

      8. Andrew Stone says:

        @macegr: Yes 0xF055 (it looks like FOSS) is the VID spread the word

    2. Phillip Torrone says:

      andrew, you wrote “Sometimes rules need to be broken to shake things up. For example, by producing a competing product to the Lilypad because its frankly been around too long without a technology update.”

      i don’t think suggesting that businesses spoof USB VIDs / use other’s trademarks is a good for the open source community.

      back to the other part of your statement – in making the flora, there wasn’t any rule i can think of that was “broken” when limor and i decided we wanted something completely different than the lilypad for our wearable electronic platform. there isn’t -anything- out there that does what we needed, so like any good maker, we built what -we- wanted to see and share with the world. as you noted, the lilypad has been around for awhile, we needed to make something completely new. well, they’re both round and becky stern just joined adafruit, so i suspect you’ll see projects with both :)

      1. makomk says:

        Whereas hobbyists like me having to pay a $2,000 fee out in order to make use of the supposedly “open” aspect of open hardware is meant to be good for it?

  4. The Unspoken Rules of Open Hardware (+ Valentine’s Day Video) » Think. Make. Test. says:

    […] Some of my favorites include crediting others as much as possible, and adding value. For the rest of the unspoken rules check out the page here. […]

  5. Chris Gammell says:

    I really dig the idea of royalties that adafruit and some other vendors pay to the kit designers. Sure, anyone _could_ make an OSHW kit when it is pushed out into the world; but I like the idea of kit creators having the ability to choose vendors based upon gentlemen(ladies)’s agreements and simple payment on a per kit basis. Much like you said you want to be running an OSHW company, Phil, I think that kind of structure allows the people who are good at making kits to continue designing them. Win-win.

    1. Phillip Torrone says:

      hey chris, thanks! yah – this friendly agreement we all seem to have has really helped get oshw where it is in my opinion.

      one of my other goals of this article is: point out who’s doing GOOD – sparkfun pays royalties on the kits/products that i know of where they worked with a kit designer or made a design. sparkfun puts this on their product pages which i think is a fantastic way to encourage more kit makers to work with companies.

    2. FrivolousEngineering (@aUselessMachine) says:

      My first attempt at having another company produce and sell a kit was…less than optimal. Make sure you know who you are getting involved with and don’t rely on a Gentleman’s agreement.

      My question is: what do you do when another company violates a Non-Commercial CC?
      Seems to me that there isn’t much a person can do to prevent this.

      1. Phillip Torrone says:

        you wrote “My question is: what do you do when another company violates a Non-Commercial CC? Seems to me that there isn’t much a person can do to prevent this”

        i don’t think CC non-commercial is actually possible for many many things. i’ve only seen issues with CC NC. i’m not sure of the specifics so i can’t say how to avoid a specific bad kit maker, but you can always write about your experiences, what went right, what went wrong and try to work towards a solution. and sometimes i totally agree a real contract is needed for some things for some companies.

  6. Ian Page-Echols says:

    Nice article. I’d bet it gets found in a bunch of “open hardware” searches and could make it more clear what people mean by the term.

    A couple things:

    “I have a box of “Arduino killers” from all over the world”. I think it’s completely legit to make a straight up Arduino clone in a part of the world where it’s hard to buy, ship, or source specific materials for a legit Arduino. I’m in the US, so this doesn’t affect me, but there are many, many people who can’t get or can’t afford buying items from the original country the open hardware was created in. This is a huge plus, not a minus, unless it’s done merely to divert some of the actual Arduino money stream and in a confusing way.

    “A new thing I’ve seen, and I don’t think meets the spirit of openness: don’t use open source hardware or software as a “prize” if your Kickstarter gets funded.” I also find it do be completely legit to get paid for what you do. If the creator of some hardware or software wants to be paid for their time, and is ok with releasing information found through their input of money and/or effort, how is that a bad thing? There’s no reason to ruin yourself for the sake of others. The alternate side of that, is that you should try to figure out some value of your labors before doing the project in the first place so that you have some idea what you want/need out of the project. If you need to pay rent, and this is all you are currently doing, you need to figure out a way to monetize your project. If it’s done in the spirit of fun, invention, and just wanting to figure it out, by all means, open source everything the second you create anything.

    Don’t look down on people who are trying to figure out a way to make doing this stuff and sharing their knowledge a way to live. That’s counter-productive. If this is seen as an issue, more sites like Kickstarter or other ways to fund projects are needed, or instruction in monetizing projects is needed. I’d love, love, love to see an article in Make about all the various pieces of business like patenting, trademarking, licensing, and gotchas setting up small businesses. I know some of those are seen as no-nos to some people, but the more people know, the better, and these are things that most of us know far too little about.

    Thanks for the article, Ian

    1. Phillip Torrone says:

      ian, there is a kickstarter that made over $30,000 USD from an adafruit design :) what do i think of that? i celebrated it and wrote an article about it:

      that’s a GREAT example of all this working out. however, i’ve seen the “promise” of open source files *only* if you pay and in other examples, only if you sign an NDA. that’s what i was talking about to be super-clear :)

      re: you’d like to see an “article in Make about all the various pieces of business like patenting, trademarking, licensing, and gotchas setting up small businesses”.

      between the maker business series, all the business posts on adafruit and dangerous prototypes i think there’s a lot out there, but we can do WAY MORE. over at adafruit we post actual code from our shopping cart, articles about how to start a kit biz to what accounting software we use. i REALLY hope more businesses talk about these things. i’ll keep trying to do more too.

      1. Leone says:

        Open Business seems to me to be the really interesting topic here. Adafruit is a real inspiration for makers, and not just those that are using technology as their medium. With the rise of the internet and social networks businesses are rapidly evolving to take advantage of these new tools. There’s a fundamental shift in the way people are treating the exchange of good and services between people and it’s Open Business thinking that has some real advantages in terms of connecting and communicating with customers. Take Open Hardware themes and apply them to businesses (sharing, building, improving, etc) and I think the Maker movement turns into a much bigger socio-economic movement, which to summarize, seems “epic.”

      2. ryochiji says:

        Great post PT! One clarification: I *raised* $30k+ but I haven’t *made* a dime yet, and probably won’t for a while ;-) I’ll be sure to pay my royalties when/if my project turns a profit though!

  7. Colin Faulkingham says:

    There are a few clones that add value IMHO. The two that come to mind are Ardweeny which has the added value of being really small and the ChipKit UNO32 which has the added values of being 32 bit.

    I really think that saying “don’t clone” really goes against the idea of being open. If you don’t want people to clone you stuff then don’t make it open. If anything the clones have helped the Arduino not hurt it.

    1. Phillip Torrone says:

      clone as in – make an exact copy, do not add any value, take the arduino name for marketing purposes.

      i don’t consider the chipkit uno an arduino clone. however, i did ask them before release not to call it “uno” or 100% arduino compatible though :( i didn’t think was good for anyone.

    2. Dominic Muren (@dmuren) says:

      I think the main point that Phil is making is not to do with openness, but with Community — after all, we are building an OSHW community, not just a definition of a class of objects. Clones which offer no differentiation other different prices and levels of support only serve to degrade the community. Phil illustrates this with the example of parents who buy arduino clones off ebay, and then can’t find good documentation of how to troubleshoot their issues. As a teacher, I can tell you that this is a serious problem for maintaining ease of induction into the community by novices.

      So, I guess the rule is, if you’re going to clone (perhaps because originals are not available in your region) then you had better clone everything, including documentation, and support service. After all, open source is really about information availability. Making and sharing a cloned design without its documentation and support infrastructure is like trying to pass off a dead parrot as a living one.

      1. Terry says:

        You seem to be assuming that the original designer will provide better documentation and support than someone who takes the design and sells it unmodified. I disagree.

        I think it just as likely that there will be people and companies who will do a much better job of documentation and support than many, even most, original designers.

        Hardware engineers don’t automatically make great support engineers or technical writers or kit designers or manufacturers or distributors. Having other people distribute, document and support designs modified or unmodified provides as much opportunity for community enrichment as the original design if it is done well.

      2. junkhacker says:

        this is actually @Terry
        maybe what we really need to do is find a way to allow partnerships to be easily created for those who see a project and say to themselves “i want to be a part of this”
        It’s frustrating to see an open source project stagnate because the original creator lost interest

  8. Andrew Stone says:

    WRT USB, as far as I know its just a number. There is nothing illegal about passing a number in a protocol. The USB consortium can only kick you out of its group if you do stuff like sell VIDs. I forget who had this idea but I think its great:

    All OSHW vendors independently use VID 0xF055 (get it :-). And we set up an OSS product announcement mailing list. The unenforced convention is that the 10th posting gets PID 10. 0xF055 is far away from existing numbers (I think they are going upwards in order) so it is not going to rip off anyone else. And if the consortium ever gets to it, they will essentially be de facto forced to skip it because nobody would want a number everybody else is squatting on.

    I only suggest this due to how ludicrious the USB pricing is. Currently it costs $2000 and you get a block of 65k numbers that will last you and your descendents forever. If the consortium ever offered reasonable pricing for a single VID/PID (say 2000/65535) then I would absolutely recommend that we support the USB consortium.

    Hopefully this will encourage the consortium to do so. The policy needs to change. Technically, it is short-sighted; if each individual really did spend the $ to license a VID, we’d burn through the available number space very quickly.

    1. Phillip Torrone says:

      i’m pretty sure no one can use apple’s USB VID or call their device IPOD or IPHONE, etc . i’m also pretty using the USB VID arduino paid for will not work out either. but! this is all happening right now, it’s completely unknown what will actually happen!

      1. Andrew Stone says:

        Its one thing to steal a trademark (i.e. IPHONE) that is backed by your country’s legal system. but VID/PID is not a trademark. On the other hand, if some company can show intentional harm they may have a different case. So using another device’s VID/PID may have a legal case around harm, but I think it would be a very hard sell since intention of harm would be impossible to prove.

        But if nobody is using that VID/PID, then there is no harm.

        Phillip, once upon a time I contributed to an obscure protocol that is what lets you have quality voice over cable. What if I suddenly tell everybody that in order to write a number in byte 10-14 of that protocol they have to pay me a thousand bucks?

        There is no legal basis to allow me to sell that ability. Its not patentable. If it was there would be no SAMBA, only windows machine shares. I can sell my copyrighted document describing the protocol. I can sell a service that ensures there won’t be number collision. But that’s it.

      2. Phillip Torrone says:

        andrew, i can give you a specific question to answer that i think will help frame this, or at least make it more relevant to my examples.

        do you think it’s ok for a business to use arduino’s USB VID to sell their own “arduino”?

      3. charliex says:

        Can’t reply to the question directly pt,.

        I think the answer to the VID/PID is yes you ought to be able too, if its truly open.

        Otherwise its a can of worms that its being opened where companies can stop people doing something because of a control of a number, where does it end ? If the VID/PID is needed to make the device function the same, then it should be allowed. Its basically a crude/legal form of copyprotection, its happened before in consoles and such where a number or string was required for a cartride to boot, names were more popular since they were trademarked etc and without that you couldn’t develop for the system without a licensing fee, that is pretty much closed.

        I understand as a business people want to remain in control of trademarks and so on, but then its not really following the open practices, most of the things you’ve mentioned here have gone on in open source, the vanity licences, for instance.

        On cloning, is making it cheaper adding value?

        I know Apple is a popular target and you’re not a Sony fan, but how much credit do Apple give Sony, who jobs wanted to emulate? Sony did a lot of the apple laptops, and later Apple woo’d away their design teams.


      4. Phillip Torrone says:

        hey charliex! it would probably be helpful to know if -you- think it’s ok for someone to use the arduino USB VID and the arduino trademark to sell arduinos. “truly open” can really mean almost anything, this is specific. the thing is, you don’t need the arduino USB VID or trademarked name to make something on your own.

        as far as apple vs sony goes, i just bought a sony blueray player (long story why) and i probably have a pretty large collection of sony-past devices. i like the sony that made amazing hardware, not the sony that went crazy suing makers. i’m not 100% sure, but i don’t think apple is currently suing sony, maybe they’re wooing their best people to work at apple, if so – that’s exactly what any company should try to do?

        and lastly you asked “On cloning, is making it cheaper adding value?” sometimes! but not if you’re going to use someone else’s trademark. anyone can check out ebay for the arduino clones that use arduino’s name and logo, i’m pretty sure you’re not suggesting that is ok?

      5. charliex says:

        hi PT :)

        This is something that i’ve thought about a lot with respect to Open Hardware vs Open Software. Open Software typically has been more resist the commercial side of things, make it free for all, all the time, or free for everyone except closed source companies.

        I feel strongly that trademarks (and patents etcc ) should never be a part of anything that is ‘open’. I can understand the rename it to something else, so yes i’m with you on the don’t call it an Arduino thats been common in open source too, fork your project but don’t redistribute it with the same name, and its for good reason, You might have seen a post i made on the adafruit forum warning people about the clone at Fry’s, its not called an arduino, its got a different name and it has some modifications.So it makes sense to do that. Wil it hurt the arduino brand name, to those that don’t know the difference, yes it will. but that’s the inherent issue with being ‘Open’

        But i disagree on the VID/PID that should be free to use, at its basic its only a serial port, I recall when this change was made people were saying it was going to be a way to control the name/distribution.

        I didn’t mean apple were suing Sony, i just mean jobs wanted to emulate sony but you rarely hear it, most people don’t even know about the sony connection, they even will say sony ripped off apple, that is Sony’s fault for letting apple beat them though. But Apple are no angels.

        Apple sue as many people as any other giant corporation, its part of the american large corp business model. They do because they have too, its a broken system, so this just seems like its adding on to it, and not going against the grain like Open Source did.

        It was interesting to see what will unfold with this, especially since there are a lot of companies relying on the commerce side behind the licensing of OSHW.

        I think you guys do a great job of marketing too, don’t get me wrong. I think its just fine to make money, but the grey area for me is where it can appear to be alluding to something that it is not. Open Source has tended to distance from the commercial, though obvious exceptions, where Open Hardware is more commercial friendly.

        I’ve done free software/hardware for 25+ years so i’m gotten my head into the space of just letting it go, i don’t care about credit, who uses it, or why or how, if someone makes money off it that is great, it’ll hopefully help someone in a way i didn’t. But then again i don’t rely on that as a source of income ( We do some projects to help our hackerspace and want to do a mom and pop electronics thing, but i still have a paying job that pays bills, the other stuff i just want so we can buy the expensive physical equipment that is need to hack, make and teach)

        must be the socialist in me ;)


      6. zing says:

        As long as they don’t pass the device a genuine Arduino(that’d be wrong) and the device is still truly compatible(complete drop-in, not like Chipkit), it is fine to use. Logically, identical devices that use identical drivers should have identical IDs, so the correct driver is picked without having to manually select it.

        A VID isn’t logo or a name, it is an arbitrary number. It is helpful that there is a registry that prevents conflicting usage, but the way the USB council makes it hard to get them at a kit or hobby level makes it difficult for anyone who wants to be good to be good.

        I see VIDs, as they are currently used, with the same eye as HDMI keys: it doesn’t stop malicious behavior and it keeps people from making.

      7. Phillip Torrone says:

        @zing – if you’re a business, shipping your own “arduino”, i don’t think you should use arduino’s USB VID. a business shouldn’t use another’s company name and/or USB VID, that’s just my opinion and i think that’s how it’s going to be. arduino for example paid money for their own USB VID. if someone wants to sell stuff they should do the same.

        for the hobbyist making their own thing i think they’re going to use whatever they want/can and i don’t think that’s a problem at all.

      8. zing says:


        Speaking of numbers that only have value because we pretend they do: I just realized that I would actually feel worse using someone else’s UPC/EAN barcode on a product, and that is saying something because the UCC/GS1 are jerks.

        This is because:
        A) doing that will screw up somebody’s inventory system when there is a collision, even if the products are identical.

        B) there is a block set aside for store use, so they can give me a number directly without me having to buy a block.

        C) if you want one consistent UPC, you can buy a single code from somebody else’s block for 20 bucks. Although some chains require you to own a whole UPC block(Kroger, Walmart, Macy) direct from UCC/GS1(which has a worse pricing policy than the USB council).

      9. zing says:

        RE: your opinion on VID ownership

        I agree that it is bad that Arduino is at an economic disadvantage because they played fair and that others can take advantage of Arduino’s good behavior.

        However, I am curious how you differentiate using a VID/PID of another device (say, to emulate a keyboard) and the behavior of the NeTV, which uses a similar magic number(that other device manufacturers paid a lot of money to use) to make something useful and complies with US law.

        Please delete this if I’m being disrespectful and I won’t quibble the point any further.

    2. Phillip Torrone says:

      zing, excellent question/comments, it’s all good! – for this example i’m referring to arduino’s name and arduino’s USB VID specifically. you’re right, they play by the rules and it’s not likely “fair” for them all the time. they’re also doing pretty good, so like everything else, maybe there’s a tax on success?

      the hobbyist and tinkerer doesn’t ever need to worry about any of this – but once you start shipping hundreds/thousands of devices by “spoofing” or using someone else’s USB VID like andrew suggested, that just seems wrong.

      re: netv – that’s a good question for bunnie, i don’t think they’re related – the way the netv actually works is extremely complicated and different than using someone’s USB VID to make a device pretend to be something else using something that was paid for (the VID). BUT i do understand what you’re saying since there are packets involved. i don’t exactly understand how the key generation works but i will try to understand this better. it’s tough, bunnie is bunnie – he actually does make magic.

      i’m talking about specifically using the arduino USB VID to make an arduino “clone”. for the netv to work you still need the devices on either side, in addition to the netv. it’s not like it’s taking the place of something else, it’s adding to.

      the palm and apple example i gave is a closer one i think, palm was trying to trick the apple software to think it was an apple product, so palm could take away an apple product sale. when someone uses the arduino name in a similar way i think that could be bad for arduino.

      1. Andrew Stone says:

        PT, forcing someone to pay 2000 bucks for a 16 bit number is called creating a “barrier to entry”. The USB consortium members do not want new device makers like OSHW hackers and startups to be taking a piece of their lunch. Its unfortunate that Adafruit and Arduino drank the kool-aid but that does not mean that everyone should follow. (But not really unfortunate, because it means that you guys are clearly doing quite well!)

        If it actually costs 2000 bucks to allocate and manage 16 bits, why does it cost only 7.99 (or less) to get a lot more bits in the form of a domain name?

        Should someone be able to market an “Arduino”? Absolutely not, that’s a trademarked name. And you can easily put it in the USB data (I know since I did a FOSS USB implementation over a Cypress chip… check out the 1st issue of the Open Hardware Journal if you want to use it). Nobody should be fooled as to the legitimacy of the product because the trademarked name “Arduino” can’t appear in the USB device name. Enforcable by laws and governments for the betterment of all, not by some group of “haves” sticking it to the “have nots”.

        Should I squat on the Arduino VID? Well, there’s really no reason that I can think of, so common courtesy suggests not. However, there is also little reason to get irritated about it. I mean, its not like someone is going to look up the VID/PID in some database, trace it back to an Arduino and then email support. Instead they will just read the illegally silkscreened word “Arduino” off the board :-).

        Should I be able to make some HW that takes advantage of someone else’s software? Absolutely! Hacking — as in taking stuff apart and making it better — is a key part of OSHW. But making my own HW does not excuse me from having a legitimate license to that SW.

      2. Phillip Torrone says:

        andrew you wrote “Should I squat on the Arduino VID? Well, there’s really no reason that I can think of, so common courtesy suggests not. ”

        that’s good to hear. and that’s what this about, common courtesy, social norms, etc. does anyone like paying $2k for a USB VID? i’m pretty sure no, i also think the USB VID system can be improved – but i don’t think “spoofing” or taking someone else’s ID is a good idea. if you’re a business that’s not really an option, so oshw businesses need to figure this one out.

        you wrote “The USB consortium members do not want new device makers like OSHW hackers and startups to be taking a piece of their lunch”

        1) how do you know that for sure? and 2) if you keep encouraging people to spoof and squat, how will that help oshw? i’d encourage you to use your energies to propose a community USB VID instead *or something* like that, it could be for anyone to use for something in the oshw world. that’s going to be my approach any way. wish me luck.

      3. Andrew Stone says:

        Good Luck! You guys just might have the pull to make it happen! But please do your research before giving another 2k to “the man”!

        At least one company has had its VID revoked for selling PIDs. I dont think I can post web addresses here; so its mselec dot com. You can still buy a PID from them… you can read a summary of the details where they are selling it.

        Of course I don’t really KNOW that all USB vendors want to discourage competition. Its hard to get a quote like that! Its just the classic proprietary business model.

        Sorry to co-opt this great article to just talk about USB. There’s a lot of other good stuff in there. Its fascinating to me that the core community seems to be voluntarily behaving in a manner similar to what you could legally enforce in OSS through a dual license GPL and commercial strategy.

        But it only takes one to upset that apple cart. But not really. I think the fact that OSHW can be stolen by copycats simply keeps us on our toes — it keeps the pressure on to make the next new thing… something that the copycats will never be able to do (by definition :-)).

      4. Shadyman says:

        It would also depend on what their definition of “selling” is.. IE, could you give away ProductIDs for a $x donation? Crowdfund a VendorID purchase?

      5. Shadyman says:

        Hmm. Where’s that “edit” button hiding…

        As far as crowdfunding, I wonder if you could essentially source $2000 (plus fees from Kickstarter, or wherever) from interested parties, and then allocate a percentage of the PIDs to each funder?

  9. Dustin Andrews says:

    Great Article Phillip. Thanks for crystallizing it here. My open source hardware projects are 100% on board with these concepts.

  10. Louis Leblanc says:

    Lovely write up. I have a few projects I want to start soon and I was thinking of starting up and releasing as open sourced hardware but there were a few things I wasn’t too sure about how they happen when it’s out in the real world.

    To me, it feels like a nice way around patents. Coming from the hypothesis that they are quite broken.

  11. Bob Coggeshall says:

    Great Article, Phil ! I haven’t seen anyone discuss the fact that the royalty model is used a great deal. These are really licenses to manufacture stuff you technically don’t need a license for; Hard concept for people to get their heads around, sometimes. Your article helps.

    I’d like to see more articles about the relationship between open source designers and manufacturers and resellers and the shared risks, and the role they each have in building communities around hackable products. When you start out you wear all 3 hats.

    1. Phillip Torrone says:

      hey bob! thanks for kind words. i’ll try to figure out a good way to get more articles like the ones you suggested out there, you can also pop by ask an engineer and ask limor these questions since this is exactly what she does with kit designers (and her as a kit design -and- maker). sometimes i think we’re ultimately all going to do contracts with each other, but so far it just hasn’t been needed. maybe the social norms really do work, or maybe they’ll just work until they don’t.

  12. Justin says:

    I agree with you. Man I would love a tutorial on the best way to launch open hardware. I am trying to get all my documentation together and recognize everyone who’s work led to my project and to make sure it is under the right license.

  13. Zizzle says:

    Coming from a free software background, I think the elephant in the room is the acceptance of closed tools and closed stacks in the Open Hardware world.

    “Oh but Eagle is only a few bucks!”
    “Everyone uses it”
    “MPLAB is online for free”
    “I only really care about the HW”

    Are the arguments made.

    A lot of useful devices are a good proportion (if not mostly) about the software/firmware.

    What point is Open Hardware if:
    – changing the hardware is useless, since you can’t change the software?
    – you need a proprietary OS to run the tools/drivers/CAD?
    – Have to pay for the various pieces of the toolchain (not a big deal for westerners, but what about our 3rd world friends)?
    – Can’t even fully modify the functionality of the device (binary libs, USB/TCP stacks etc)?
    – you can’t come back and modify an old project since the toolchain/drivers/CAD is no longer available for your OS or at all from the manufacturer?
    – your design is trapped in a proprietary file format that is inevitable going to be unsupported?

    What happens if Eagle decides to up the price or stop making it’s wares? It feels like OH is relying on some corporate charity.

    Open Hardware*.

    * Fine print: Opens the door for you cough up for the Windows OS license, Eagle Soft licence, MPLAB licence, Xilinx license, Microchip TCP/USB stack licence, wifi driver licence, etc.

    1. Miroslava von Schlockbaum says:

      Well said! and not said often enough. There are a number of projects flogged here as ‘open hardware’ that would paid-for binary-only libraries to do anything with them. (and yes, the .Net folks will protest this characterization, but until you’ve tried to do it starting from a linux platform you’ll wonder at this resistance)

      Open ‘Source’ Hardware is possible without any software considerations, but either it should not depend upon -any- firm/soft-ware configuration or it should have a link where all the software source is available (with no links to closed source libraries). It’s a hard requirement to achieve for many, but it’s that or a fairly meaningless definition of Open (source) Hardware.

    2. Phillip Torrone says:

      zizzle, i like that people who use windows or a commercial CAD tool can still make open-source hardware. that’s a strength, not a weakness. the direction is more open tools and more open formats. to be specific since that’s what i try to be about stuff like this, EAGLE now has xml format, gEDA and Kicad always have from what i recall. EAGLE added this after talking to and working with the oshw community, the direction moving towards more open exchange formats and ultimately more open tools – just my opinion. microchip did an open bounty for an open stack, i think they’re trying hard to do open source hardware with the chipkit.

      i know we’d like all of this to happen overnight, but i think it’s happening. these are not “what ifs” these are real examples. i think our job as the oshw community is to encourage these companies – not punish them or each other if we haven’t got off every single commercial tool yet :)

      i guess i’d ask which oshw hardware project died because of some commercial tool issue?

    3. mike stone says:

      You beat me to the point by a few minutes (see below).

      To argue the opposite side of the issue momentarily, we probably all agree that we have to buy our components from vendors. Things get fuzzy between ‘transistor’ and ‘packaged circuit’ though. An FPGA can be more Open than the driver for a switching power supply.

      OTOH, look at all the designs out there for LED flashers that revolve around the LM3909 (discontinued, no recommended replacement), or function generators based on the 8038 (discontinued, no recommended replacement)

      1. Phillip Torrone says:

        mike you wrote “we probably all agree that we have to buy our components from vendors. Things get fuzzy between ‘transistor’ and ‘packaged circuit’ though. An FPGA can be more Open than the driver for a switching power supply.”

        this is one of the best comments about this! in past there have been comments about how our soldering irons are not open source so none of us are actually doing open source. it sounds a little crazy, but i have a collection of these over the last 5 years.

        i think the reality of making hardware means we can create open things that may just need components from vendors like a resistor. as long as our designs can work by abstracting as much as possible i think we can keep moving forward. and i’d like to see a really good oshw soldering iron too :)

      2. mike stone says:

        I think it was Carl Sagan who said, “If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you first have to create the universe.”

        In the long run, “is required-item-X Open?” isn’t all that important, or even useful a question. The useful questions are, “how critical to the final product is required-item-X?” and “how hard is it to find a substitute for required-item-X?” If the answers are “not very” and “easy,” it boils down to a question of convenience.

        This, of course, coming from a guy who ball-mills solder to make his own solder paste (mixed results at this time), and iron-plates copper wire to make his own soldering iron tips.

  14. mike stone says:

    One of my soapbox issues is the use of proprietary/restricted components within Open Hardware designs. You touched on the issue generally, probably the closest item being “if you do Open Hardware, use Open Hardware,” but there’s a point I want to direct address directly:

    I’m going to pick on the Arduino briefly (great product, love it, own several, have the highest opinion of everyone involved with it) because, as you said, it’s the example everyone knows. But when you get right down to it, the Arduino is a candy shell around a proprietary core: a specific set of Atmel microcontrollers. The whole ecosystem revolves around what, in the final analysis, is a single-sourced, proprietary component.

    It’s all too easy to design hardware that way.. to buy the interesting/complicated/essential features of a design from a non-Open vendor.

    I don’t think that’s ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’, but I do think it’s something we should talk about. It’s only right to respect the terms of Openness when you make a derivative product, but it’s also worth thinking about how far back you can trace Openness through a product’s ancestry. If we lose sight of that, we could see the definition of ‘Open Hardware’ diluted to ‘putting proprietary hardware in a custom-made box’.

    1. Phillip Torrone says:

      hey mike! this is a GOOD one, late nights talking about oshw with other makers/kitters/etc this comes up.

      here’s my current thought on it (and i may change my mind later).

      even though the AVR is a proprietary core, it is turing complete and a RISC processor. that means emulating AVRs in an FPGA is trivial, and has even been done before…

      if we’re ever stuck without AVRs, we can mask our own ROMs. and i think one day we will. but besides that fact, the best thing about arduino is how it abstracts away so much of the low level core commands, that dozens have ported the arduino IDE to their favorite processor.

      1. mike stone says:

        Like I said, I don’t think there’s any one-size-fits-all answer.

        One perfectly good justification for Open Hardware is to wrap an easy-to-use interface around a cool-but-complicated device. The Arduino did that by giving us a USB connection between any normal computer and a uC. Such projects will almost always have a proprietary core.

        We just need to remember that Open Hardware is as much a process as a product, and that depth of Open ancestry is something to admire/encourage/pursue.

        On the flip side, I think we should have some kind of ritualized “dude..[blank stare]” response for situations where someone looks at a deeply Open design and says, “why don’t you just buy proprietary-device-X?”

  15. Robin Debreuil says:

    I agree with a lot of points here, but I do feel strongly that if you choose to make something open, it is then open and people can do whatever they like with it. The ‘trademark’ names are a separate subject I think, as they fall under trademarks (iinal). Arduino can be open source and still trademark their name – no conflict there that I see.

    If you are not ok with someone taking your exact design and selling it, then you probably shouldn’t be making it open. You can still release all the schematics and source if you like, just say make it free for non commercial or something.

    I appreciate the desire to have a ‘code of reasonable behaviour’, but not not if it dilutes the meaning of ‘open’. I sometimes feel this exact undertone in open hardware – the ‘I worked hard on this so don’t just copy it’. The software side it is usually ‘I worked hard on this, fork away’. Seriously though, if you don’t feel good about the latter, then there is no shame in going for a license that suits you.

    Hardware is different because there are objects with costs, so a project’s ‘momentum’ isn’t just mindshare. Maybe it’s harder for good work and energy to stand on it’s own. In the end it may be perfectly reasonable that software style OSS licenses don’t fit hardware, I don’t know but this conversation would be a great starting point. In the meantime though, ‘unspoken rules’ tied to open licenses have a bit of a chilling effect imo.

    1. Phillip Torrone says:

      yah, i’m hoping this kicks off more conversations. hardware really isn’t protectable, so all we have is how we as a community ultimately treat each other. there isn’t a license that will actually stop someone from copying your hardware.

      this is a big ole’ topic i didn’t see talked about, but i saw all these things going on over the years.

      paying designers who make a kit with a company and getting a royalty hasn’t had a chilling effect, it’s only encouraged more oshw. it’s not required, but it’s something that’s going on. it seems right to me, this isn’t a license thing – it’s a community thing.

      some of the unspoken rules i talked about was to address some issues like copying without adding value – a good example are many of the straight up arduino clones. they’re identical, and many use the arduino name. this isn’t a fork, this isn’t copy and improve, it’s just bad for everyone in the ecosystem.

      just because we put our things under an open license doesn’t mean we can’t encourage others to add value if they’re going to use our stuff. that’s the goal right? add value each time?

      any way, more opinions by me, it’s soapbox, i’m sure i’ll change my mind on some of these too over time.

      1. Robin Debreuil says:

        I really think it is admirable you all pay royalties on each other’s kits, and I agree it is a great community thing. I think it is still very important that paying a royalty or enhancing a design is not expected, even within the community.

        One of the main drivers of open source is not having to duplicate effort. If someone releases an open stepper controller board and I need one, I am very grateful because I don’t have to spend weeks learning the nuances, making prototypes etc. If the view is I have to add value or feel like a jerk, then it is a much smaller gift. I still have to learn all the nuances, form opinions about them, and prototype etc. Sure I have a board to look at and probably don’t have to worry about lawyers, but that isn’t a huge step up from a datasheet reference design. . So the chilling effect is that if I ever needed such a thing I might not use an open design for fear of offending someone.

        Of course it is 100% acceptable for people to not offer this, but they shouldn’t call it open source then imo. I’ve worked on a lot of open source software, and one of the gratifying things about it is knowing you’ve (hopefully!) saved other people some time and grief. I think that is even more the case in hardware as there are so many things that are not immediately obvious, especially to a hobbiest.

        I think it will take time to settle on how commercial products and open hardware work together, like it did with software. You are totally right that this conversation should be happening, glad it is.

      2. Phillip Torrone says:

        robin, ah – i see what you’re saying – i should be more specific about “copy” – i mean when a company (not a hobbyist) makes an exact copy of an ardunio with the only goal to just take away a sale from the arduino team. i don’t think that’s adding any value.

        for the hobbyist, open source hardware is great – you can get the best designs from amazing engineers to use in your projects/products. as you said, you don’t need to re-invent the wheel if someone made a great stepper board. your for-instance is how i think a lot of open source hardware works, and it’s working great.

        i have a good recent example – monome made a new product based around the adafruit waveshield and arduino. they didn’t need to re-do all that work, they got to use it. their new product is now open source since it’s based on open source. and for this, no royalties were offered or paid – and it wasn’t expected. they’re adding value back with their new designs released as open source.

        1. Ed Roberts says:

          The question is sometimes, why cant companies not make their own cheap copies? Take again the example of the arduino, what is the reason for an arduino clone being half or a third of the price of the proper one? They both I assume are made in China. Usually the work is done regards r&d? Just asking

    2. Terry says:

      I agree with you completely, indeed I was about to post much the same sentiment.

      I saw this discussion in the early days or Free and Open Source Software with early developers producing code with the intent of having it open but trying to balance that against the reality of the cost of production and trying to recoup it somehow. As a consequence we ended up with code with all sorts of strange requests that came outside the license like “send me a postcard”, or “donate spare hardware” or “Don’t rip me off”. Developers can request what they like, but they should not be disappointed so long as an end-user complies with the terms of the license, anything more than that is generous, but un-necessary.

      At the end of the day a leap of faith is required. Some people will profit, some will not.

      I don’t believe you will successfully mandate a culture, all you can do is encourage it. I personally dislike ‘Rule’ applied in this context. Your license is what grants people rights to use your design. If you want to mandate (formally, or informally) royalties for use, or some other condition, then use a license that says so.


      1. Phillip Torrone says:

        terry, since there isn’t a license that can actually protect hardware – my point is – all we have is each other and our community. code can be copyrighted, hardware? nope… there isn’t a license that actually protects it in the same way. copyright doesn’t map to electronic / physical designs. that’s what patents are for. so what do we do? all get patents? or work on some other way. this is the other way i think :)

      2. Robin Debreuil says:

        Thought about this for a day before responding again. I really think what you want then is a free-for-non-commercial license and should use that. Consider someone releasing on an open license without the above reservations – do they have to add ‘and I actually mean open’?

        “when a company (not a hobbyist) makes an exact copy of an ardunio with the only goal to just take away a sale from the arduino team. i don’t think that’s adding any value.”

        Really, ‘open’ isn’t about the sale imo. It is taking an idea and setting it free, it then competes on it’s own with all the other good ideas out there. One needs to look at it from the perspective of the idea, not the person that thought of it. If company X makes 10000 exact copies of the arduino, the idea propagates – who profits is irrelevant. The value is that the idea was able to move around without friction.

        As a business you have to be confident that people will still purchase from you when they have other options, or that clones will grow the idea and everyone benefits, or something else. If that seems untenable, then there are a million more ‘normal’ licenses to choose from any which may be entirely appropriate, and I don’t think anyone would think less of you for it. If you do go the route of open then I think it is important not to attach any pressures to it. Open needs to mean open, not budging on that trumps anything secondary imo.

        1. Terry says:

          I agree with you completely. If you look at how the Open Source community has matured those sorts of conditions have virtually disappeared. People recognise that if they’re looking for support or continued development of a development who they should get it from. Many times it will be the original developers, many times it will not, it will always be who proves they’re continuing to actively develop and support the product.

          If you’re going to do a free or open design then you do it not expecting anything at all in return other than to have people pick up your design and use it. If you’re wanting anything else then don’t call it free or open and don’t use a free or open license.

  16. mike stone says:

    We also need to be aware of subtle issues imposed by our toolchain.

    Another of my soapbox issues is “don’t let CNC design drive out non-CNC design.” It’s an issue I’ve seen both in the Maker community and in a company where I lived through the adoption of CNC.

    If you give someone CNC equipment, there’s a tendency for them to start designing things that can *only* be made with CNC equipment. I’m not talking about sophisticated, tight-tolerance work either. Give someone a laser cutter and tell them to make a box, and you’re almost guaranteed to get some weird combination of tabs and slots, many of which require close tolerances to work right, and which would take a full day to cut with hand tools.

    The kicker is that the result probably won’t perform as well as a butt joint and a couple of screws.

    The spirit of Openness extends to our processes as well as our components and design drawings. Again, it’s valuable to ask “how can I do it another way?” when thinking about the design.

  17. Wed, 15 Feb 2012 13:27:50 | savvykang says:

    […] 87. The {Unspoken} Rules of Open Source Hardware […]

  18. Jeremy Saglimbeni says:

    Good stuff Phil! I agree with you pretty much whole heartedly. As a kit business owner getting my business off the ground, I think it is imperative that I follow the ‘unspoken’ rules. Sure, I could do some cheep copying and call it my own, but it will bite me in the end. Not only does that practice go against the grain of my character, but it shooting myself in the foot. It would surly put my name and reputation out there as an ‘idea stealer’ vs someone who has designs and can actually explain them.

    I’m not saying we can’t improve on existing things or use a library from someone else, but I think it is important to give credit where credit is due. Making these good choices will establish you as a artist/maker/hacker and not a hack.

    I agree with you on true fact that if you are going to call your project open source, then open source it. I call my company an open source hardware company and have the files to prove it, others should follow. Open source is kind of like a new buzz word that people are starting to pick up on. We (the open source community) need to hold peoples feet to the fire about this. This also includes the mentioned customer support as well. :)

    I have put all my ‘chips’ into creating my open source hardware business and I’m in it for the long run. I understand the long hours, low income, and long ride down the runway to get this plane airborne. I hope that others will recognize and understand the blood, sweat and tears that goes into starting and running an open source business. Not just my business, but other businesses as well, and past recognizing them, actually supporting them. In saying all that, I fully support the idea of paying royalties to people. Open source is great, but sometimes people want everything for free. If you don’t feed the people who make cool things, there will be no more cool things.

    I would hope that this article will bring hope and encouragement to the legit people out there contributing to the open source hardware community, and be a wake up call to those out there who are taking the easy road or just flat cloning.

  19. The Custom Geek says:

    […] This entry was posted in Open Source Hardware and tagged kit business, open source hardware, Phillip Torrone, Rules. Bookmark the permalink. ← Quick, Cheep Camera Stand […]

  20. mad-kiwi says:

    The big thing I don’t understand about open source is the whole licensing scheme, which licenses the software should be referenced too. My goal would be to open source the license so it could be improved upon by anyone in the community while I get some of the credit.

    Any chance you do write an article on ins and outs of the licensing??

  21. MAKE | Follow Up – A Culture of Ethics in Open Source Hardware? says:

    […] from Dangerous prototypes has posted up some thoughts on my article “The {Unspoken} Rules of Open Source Hardware”. His post “A culture of ethics in open source hardware?” has some really good things […]

  22. Terry says:

    Phillip, I can’t seem to make a reply to a reply work, but you’re right that copyright may not apply to hardware and hence the hardware may be un-protected by it. The same though is not true of your design files, your website, and your other documentation.

    If people want to take an instance of your hardware and re-produce it from scratch then they can, unencumbered by anything other than patent.

    If on the other hand they take your design files, your eagle schematic and PCB layout files for example, and your documentation etc and use those then it’s a different matter. Those things can be protected by copyright.

    It’s a nuance that I think is important.

    On my use of ‘may’ with respect to copyright on hardware, I think it’s an interesting question. Can I copy a sculpture? Do sculptors have no protection of their intellectual property? Is an assembled circuit not a work of art?

  23. Follow Up – A Culture of Ethics in Open Source Hardware? | TUMBLR TRANSLATOR says:

    […] from Dangerous prototypes has posted up some thoughts on my article “The {Unspoken} Rules of Open Source Hardware”. His post “A culture of ethics in open source hardware?” has some really good things from the […]

  24. Follow Up – A Culture of Ethics in Open Source Hardware? says:

    […] from Dangerous prototypes has posted up some thoughts on my article “The {Unspoken} Rules of Open Source Hardware”. His post “A culture of ethics in open source hardware?” has some really good things from the […]

  25. Christopher says:

    Hi Philip and thanks for a great post!
    I’ve been following these posts with great interest and will continue to do so, but I would like to make a request for a post. I guess many people are new to open source hardware, and the first thing that struck me when I was going to upload some designs on Thingiverse was the “mess” of licenses. What means what and what to prefer on hardware? Most (all?) seems to be made for software from start so applying them on hardware can be tricky sometimes. Could you make a post in the future explaining this?

  26. Dynamodan says:

    I’m all excited about the idea of the 0xF055 usb vendor id. But one concern is that big companies like apple might then spoof it or try to claim it or even purchase it from that USB consortium whatever. Sort of like the stephen right line about driving your house into the middle of the interstate and then yelling at people to stop driving through your back yard.

  27. John Norman says:

    I also run a small business based in large part on open-source hardware. For me, open sourcing stuff is more a practical matter than ideology. The reality is that as soon as I release my products into the wild, anyone can reverse-engineer and clone them.

    Having the Eagle source files takes about 2 days of work out of the process, but otherwise it’s the same.

    So I just open-source most of my designs and don’t expect anything in return. I seem to do OK on the fact that my open-source stuff solves a problem and it’s cheaper and easier to buy one from me than to make your own, unless you need a bunch of them.

    One thing that strikes me in this conversations is that it’s mostly focused on hobbyist products and development/prototype boards. This could be seen by some as a limited pie and we have multiple people wanting to capture as much of it as they can. (Witness the Arduino/VID debate).

    I think a lot of people will find that they can make a good living if they stop worrying about “commercial use” or “undesirable applications” of their designs and recognize that most of these items are being sold as bare boards and are not ready to be placed into an industrial or other critical environment anyway.

    There is plenty of money to be made in generating solutions for customers using OSH. This includes people who got their idea basically working with an Arduino and a motor shield or whatever, but now need something more robust and tested to put in their assembly line, control their front door, etc. Or perhaps someone sees your design and wants to hire you to do something else for them.

    A good many of the existing boards and modules out there now are based on the manufacturer’s reference designs anyway, so I don’t really see much of the re-use of OSH designs and ideas that goes on as taking advantage of the original designer.

    I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around why it’s generally acceptable by everyone that a CentOS distro could be running in everything from the web site of a non-profit group to the corporate call center of a multinational, yet an open-source hardware design is a different animal entirely.


    1. Dominic Muren (@dmuren) says:


      Great point. In fact, I think this is the real tip-of-the-poison-dart that OSHW represents to a centralized, globalized manufacturing: The bigger the company, the more generic its solutions have to be.

      Just as an individual person can’t “talk” to a large-scale corporation (for example, to tell Foxcon you’re uncomfortable with their disregard for worker mental health), large-scale companies have a hell of a time creating products that serve the specific needs of individuals, while bringing in the kind of money they need to stay solvent. After all, managing each product offering to match its user group’s needs incurs a real administrative cost. Better to focus on products that serve many people generically than few people specifically, or your admin costs go through the roof.

      The type of business you suggest:

      “There is plenty of money to be made in generating solutions for customers using OSH. This includes people who got their idea basically working with an Arduino and a motor shield or whatever, but now need something more robust and tested to put in their assembly line, control their front door, etc. Or perhaps someone sees your design and wants to hire you to do something else for them.”

      Is the exact opposite of the generalized centralized manufacturer. Even though these designers have access to tremendous amounts of design components (via OSHW), they are small enough that they can make products in runs of 1000,100,or 10 — their value comes from understanding their end users as perfectly as possible, and matching those needs with re-worked or re-mixed existing designs from the community.

      Anyway, I think you make a great point. I hope more people start to see it too :)

  28. MAKE | Open Source “Upgrade” Badges For Your Projects… says:

    […] by going open. This is a great example of some of the things I talked about in my recent article “The {Unspoken} rules of open-source hardware”. The greatest part of selling open source hardware is what happens after the sale.  I am […]

  29. Dominic Muren (@dmuren) says:

    Great article Phil, thanks for making this so clear.

    One piece that I think is also implicit in the OSHW conversation, but rarely stated, and even more rarely examined is this: It doesn’t do much good to open the design of something unless that design is somewhat modular, and the tools and materials to compile that design in to a functional object are available more or less ubiquitously.

    Software has the advantage of satisfying all of these needs:
    -Modularity through function libraries, re-usable algorithms and subroutines
    -Compiling tools are ubiquitous, since cheap PCs are the reason for software demand, and open source compilers exist as well.
    -Material is also easy, as there really isn’t any (maybe electricity :)

    Bare-bones electronic kits also have an advantage:
    -Modularity through existing functional modularity of electronic components and flexibility of manufacturing for things like PCBs
    -Compiling tools exist (Pick and place) though many people substitute hands, since it’s possible.
    -Materials are also generally available, either because of good supply chains, or because of lots of electronic detritus to scrap from.

    But making actual full-on open hardware products generally falls short:
    -Modularity doesn’t work for plastic shells, structural metal members, panel shapes for clothing, etc. We need more powerful methods for making this possible.
    -Compiling tools are not well distributed, and many of the traditional tools (plastic injection molding machines, for example) require expensive tooling, or massive space, or cost too much to ever be ubiquitous. We need to start be designing using more available, flexible machines, and move forward with designs for new compilers which offer different types of materials, object shapes, and functional properties — 3d printing isn’t enough.
    -Materials are even less open, in general. Most people around the world don’t have access to Mcmaster Carr, or online ordering of many different types of materials we take for granted. I believe that the only way to a truly open hardware will be to derive all raw materials from biological sources — plants, animals, bacteria, yeast, etc. That way, we can ship an ecosystem to a region, or adapt one from their native flora and fauna, and makers there will be able to compile designs using these materials, without having to get materials shipped to them every time they want to make something.

    In short, I’d say “Design modularity, Compiler and material accessibility” are my two cents :) Thanks again for the essay.

  30. Open Source “Upgrade” Badges For Your Projects… | House of Mods says:

    […] by going open. This is a great example of some of the things I talked about in my recent article “The {Unspoken} rules of open-source hardware”. The greatest part of selling open source hardware is what happens after the sale.  I am […]

  31. john the papa says:

    I think you are wrong on clones. Cloning is cool. Cloning is the base of the open society. There is a very good reason why the free manifesto does not require increased value. What you are talking about is the fact that some bad clones give some large brands some badwill. Just like in the real world. But this has nothing to do with the OSH-community as such. Even if there were a “increased value”-clause in the free manifesto, who is to decide what is “increased value” or “product improvement”? For some a cheaper product is a better product, no matter how much you might dislike the very same product.

  32. Paul Williamson says:

    What about the TAPR effort that produced the Open Hardware License? Is that the nucleus of a foundation?

  33. mindmil says:

    Phil, I was reading through the long discussion about VID issues and as I see you’ve investigated this topic a lot I would like to ask the following question:
    As VID is assigned to one vendor is there a clear legal reason why this vendor cannot be an umbrella non-profit company. Let’s for example call this company “Small Series Designs Foundation” (or SSDF for brevity). The purpose of this company would be to sponsor small producers which must become foundation members with subsets of otherwise costly licenses (USB, CAN, EAN you name it). To become a member it would have membership fee but license is then allocated to a member for free. It could even have a donation based funding to support start-ups and hobbyists. Legaly all the VID/PID pairs would belong to SSDF but its members would be entitled to use particular subsets as their membership right. So products would have VID “SSDF” and PID “Foo device” which something particular to SSDF’s member company/individual.
    What do you think could be potentially legally wrong with such arrangement?
    Or should I ask USB IF themselves?

  34. MAKE | Open Source Hardware Association announced! says:

    […] Soapbox: The {Unspoken} Rules of Open Source Hardware. Share this: Pin ItLike this:LikeBe the first to like this […]

  35. MAKE | Soapbox: Counterfeit Open Source Hardware — Knockoffs 101 says:

    […] 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. […]

  36. Make’s rules for Open Source Hardware | says:
  37. Dustin Andrews says: Words to live by, and we shall.

  38. High Technology » Blog Archive » Soapbox: Counterfeit Open Source Hardware — Knockoffs 101 says:

    […] 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. […]

  39. David Wechsler (@dwechsler) says:

    I think this is a great discussion and I’ve learned much! I’m interested in what people say to another when they find that the license (whatever kind) is not being adhered to. Also, I think a discussion on Open Source Crafts (if there is such a thing) – how to apply these concepts to non-uC/uP based hardware.

  40. croztech says:

    Reblogged this on croztech and commented:
    Phillip Torrone talks about open source hardware. Some words of wisdom in what is still a maturing community. All of my projects published on this blog will be as open source hardware under a CC license. (more on that later)

  41. Ahmet Cem TURAN (Action68) says:

    Below response was actualy written in reply to : “Let’s try that again.” But MB seems not to like it as it is still waiting for approval so I wanted to post it here…
    MakerBot has done a LOT for the community. ” I believe the community has done much more for Makerbot. Actually I can understand (especially after that stupid crowd sourcing stunt..) that MB does want to go at least aprtially closed source..
    And the Software interface: I dont think that is even worth talking about. No innovation nothing new.. just closed source…

    BUT behaving like MB is the only/first/sole company to produce affordable 3d printers is just relying on the “un-information” of ppl. That is not good.. As JP once pointed out sometimes it is only the name a developer benefits from…

    All speeches, press-conferences etc giver the impression that MB is the innovator while truth is that it is a mimicker…

  42. Protei INC and Open H2O » Cesar Harada says:

    […] they would produce a copy-cat technology faster and cheaper. Not cool, not following “the [unspoken] rules of Open Hardware“. Makerbot industries had to close the source of the project, at the disappointment of many […]

  43. Klein Wenger says:

    I realize this is old and maybe better left alone but I have to say I was kinda rubbed the wrong way by this whole article as the basis of thinking is that the creator developer is owed something for their intellectual property. The issue I have with this is that the very concept of open source is based on the idea that ideas are inherently and infinitely evolving and products that may arise are just points on that infinite timeline. As an example, I was referenced to your article from Bart Dring’s site for makerslide wherein he implies that he appreciates it when he gets royalties back but I have to say I find this a little irritating as his product is just a minor modification from a number of base commerical t-slot products as well as numerous specialized ones that even have the idea of a V-edge – so why is it that he’s due a royalty for his particular place on the tree and not all of the other products that led to his minor (albeit valuable) innovation? Anyway, I do agree with the principles and concepts here if not the specifics and I finally found something I find to be more intellectually and philosophically acceptable so I thought I’d post it up here in case others see it way I do…

    It would be interesting to hear your thoughts on this version vs your unwritten rules manifesto. The fact that this one recognizes the many layers and generations of concepts going into any (many/most?) current open source projects I find much more appealing. As another example, I think its interesting that the Arduino team have gotten tons of accolades and credit but they really took the ideas of processing and wiring and to a very large degree simply repackaged them, and those ideas themselves were refined from earlier generations and so on… I’d be interested to know how much of the royalties going to the arduino team continued upstream… The point isn’t to beat up on any of the individuals who have taken royalties out of the open source hardware pie but rather to recognize the difficulty if not complete absurdity of trying to make a claim to the “real” value in an IP laden open source hardware product.

    Anyway, my $0.02, would be interested in hearing your thoughts.

  44. bobc says:

    I agree with Klein. These “rules” are a terrible idea. At least two of the them go against the four fundamental freedoms of Open Hardware. I appreciate that making money out of Open Hardware is difficult, but effectively adding an NC clause via an informal rider is wrong and damaging.

    If you can’t work with what it says in the Open Hardware definition, then you are not doing Open Hardware. How is someone in China who has followed the Open Hardware licence, but doesn’t happen to be part of the clique, even supposed to know what these “extra rules” are?

    The four freedoms:

    Freedom 0: The freedom to use the device for any purpose.
    Freedom 1: The freedom to study how the device works and change it to make it to do what you wish. Access to the complete design is precondition to this.
    Freedom 2: Redistribute the device and/or design (remanufacture).
    Freedom 3: The freedom to improve the device and/or design, and release your improvements (and modified versions in general) to the public, so that the whole community benefits. Access to the complete design is precondition to this.

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  47. phillips1012 says:

    > “If your goal is just to make Arduino clones and not add code or hardware improvements, please go do something else instead.”

    Cloning actually benefits quite a few people. I specifically bought something that I knew was a clone because it was cheaper. It’s similar to how it’s perfectly acceptable to distribute builds of open source software.

    I don’t however agree with distributing it without pointing out that it is a clone and not an official “build”, but if it saves me money then I’ll buy it.

  48. Tindie Blog | Tindie Launches Open Designs and Kickbacks says:

    […] 2012 Phillip Torrone (senior editor at MAKE and creative director of AdaFruit) laid out “The {Unspoken} Rules of Open Source Hardware”. One of the key tenants is: “We pay each other royalties, even though we don’t need […]

  49. Ian says:

    You should either retract these rules, or stop calling what you do “Open Source”. What you say in this post — that “you are free to do whatever you want with our designs as long as we approve of it in advance” – is in conflict with every major open hardware license.

    The Open Source Definition (from the Open Source Initiative) says that:

    The license must allow modifications and derived works, and must allow them to be distributed under the same terms as the license of the original software.


    The license must not restrict anyone from making use of the program in a specific field of endeavor. For example, it may not restrict the program from being used in a business, or from being used for genetic research.

    The TAPR Open Hardware License says that:

    Like the GNU General Public License, the OHL is designed to guarantee your freedom to share and to create. It forbids anyone who receives rights under the OHL to deny any other licensee those same rights to copy, modify, and distribute documentation, and to make, use and distribute products based on that documentation.


    You may modify the documentation and make products based upon it. You may use products for any legal purpose without limitation.

    The CERN Open Hardware License says that:

    The Licensee may manufacture or distribute Products always provided that [the licensee provides a copy of the source documentation, and this license along with it]

    The LGPL, used by OpenCores includes the FSF’s “Freedom 0” — that you have “The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose”, so long as any derivative works that you distribute will also include the source code and the same licensing.

    Which brings me to an interesting question: If the MakerBot 2 is based on the original MakerBot (as I’d imagine it would be), then why isn’t it following these unspoken rules and being open-sourced?

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