PATENT-B-GONE! Inventor Mitch Altman explains why he open-sourced his TV-B-Gone kit

PATENT-B-GONE! Inventor Mitch Altman explains why he open-sourced his TV-B-Gone kit

Make Pt1120
Inventor Mitch Altman explains why he open-sourced his TV-B-Gone kitMAKE volume 12.

As an inventor, I was taught that patents encouraged creativity and entrepreneurship. So, after finishing my first TV-B-Gone universal remote control prototype, I naturally called my brother the patent attorney, and together we filed a patent application.

Was that the best move?
TV-B-Gone remote controls are key chains with one button that make it fun to turn off almost any TV in public places. Oddly enough, within weeks of the first day of sales, the TV-B-Gone story appeared in major and minor newspaper, magazine, radio, and even TV outlets throughout the planet. It was a hit!

With this vast popularity, what might have happened if my packaging had not displayed the words: “Patent Pending”? Maybe it stopped some large companies from copying TV-B-Gone remotes, since selling copies would open them up for being sued once my patent was granted.

Would it be different if my product were open source?
I knew about open source, of course, but never considered it viable for hardware until going to my first hacker convention. There I met people who are very critical of patents and other forms of intellectual property law. They see these laws as obsolete and obnoxious. Individuals who want to hack cool ideas to improve upon them and share their results are often preyed upon and silenced by corporate lawyers protecting their clients’ patents. Paradoxically, this stifles the creativity that patents were supposed to encourage. This point of view was an eye-opener for me.

I decided to go for it. Together with Limor Fried (who makes lots of great kits), we’re making open source kits available so anyone can build and hack TV-B-Gone remote controls (look for an upcoming MAKE article about this). The firmware source code will be available online, as well as the board layout, lots of TV power codes, and all documentation.

Even though my project was not open source, I benefited from the open source community. People hacked TV-B-Gone remote controls in wonderfully creative ways. (Search online for “TV-B-Gone hacks” and you’ll get the idea.) These hacks increased the product’s popularity, resulting in more sales and more people around the world experiencing the satisfaction of turning off TVs. Also, since there was an army of TV-B-Goners who emailed me with ideas on how to improve upon my initial design, the next versions of TV-B-Gone remotes were considerably better than the original. Everything added up for me to look seriously at Creative Commons, a form of open source licensing.

The added buzz will likely also help sales of ready-made TV-B-Gone key chains, since not everyone wants to build their own. Everybody wins. In the words of my brother the patent lawyer, “The old way of patent law is to think: ‘This is mine and I’m going to keep it.’ This may have some advantages, but with open source you can share and bring more creative minds to the process. What’s really nice is that you don’t have to give up all your rights. With open source you can have the best of all worlds.”

Mitch Altman’s next products, based on the “Brain Machine” article he wrote for MAKE, Volume 10, are also open source.

You can check out the TV-B-Gone assembled and kit versions at the Maker Shed store.

8 thoughts on “PATENT-B-GONE! Inventor Mitch Altman explains why he open-sourced his TV-B-Gone kit

  1. cyenobite2 says:

    Thanks for sharing this ‘open source’ success story.

  2. Alan Parekh says:

    Big thanks to Mitch for furthering the open source hardware movement.

  3. Daniel says:

    Great Gizmo! Great Inventor!

  4. Rick says:

    Something that doesn’t add up about this inventor’s decision is that the U.S. patent system encourages others to learn from inventions that are patented. That is the reason they are publicly available to anyone who is interested in the technology.

    There is no reason to believe that if he enforced his patent that others could not improve on his design and share improvements with him. The patent would only prevent others from profiting after ripping off his idea. Ironically, manufacturers might not even want to build his invention without a patent and if he never had it manufactured or patented, it would be much less likely that his idea would get out into the public eye, so his idea would have had less influence and exposure. If his goal was to attract attention to his invention, the open source route would be less effective and his idea might be lost over time.

    It seems that he is trying to claim that the patent process is keeping his ideas from the public, but that would not happen if it was released “open source.” But one of the main reasons that he was awarded a patent is that he was willing to share his idea with the public, and that’s exactly what he would do if it was disclosed through an “open source” release anyway.

    I’m not saying it was a bad decision for him to go open source, just that his reasoning is not very solid.

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Mitch Altman

Mitch Altman is a San Francisco-based hacker and inventor, best known for inventing TV-B-Gone remote controls, a keychain that turns off TVs in public places. He was also co-founder of 3ware, a successful Silicon Valley startup in the late 1990s, and did pioneering work in Virtual Reality in the mid-1980s. He has contributed to MAKE Magazine and other magazines, and wrote a chapter for “Maker Pro”, a book about making a living from projects one loves. For the last several years Mitch has been giving talks, and leading workshops around the world, teaching people to make cool things with microcontrollers and teaching everyone to solder. He promotes hackerspaces and open source hardware wherever he goes. He is a co-founder of Noisebridge hackerspace in San Francisco, and is President and CEO of Cornfield Electronics.

Wikipedia page

TEDxBrussels talk: "The Hackerspace Movement"

View more articles by Mitch Altman


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