MAKE’s Exclusive Interview with Jan Malasek from Pololu

MAKE’s Exclusive Interview with Jan Malasek from Pololu

Pt 963

In my previous article Jan Malasek from Pololu had some really interesting statements on intellectual property, so in addition to wanting to know more, I thought I’d see if Jan was up for an interview with MAKE about Pololu. I’ve been covering a lot of open-source hardware companies, almost exclusively, so I wanted to make sure I had some in the “maker space” that have not been covered in the recent open-source hardware articles (I don’t think open-source is for everyone, and see the value in a lot of diverse business models). Special thanks to Jan for sharing a bit about the company and more!

Hi Jan! Thanks for answering these questions! Where are you right now?
I’m in my office in Las Vegas.

How did Pololu get started?
We got started in 2000 as college students making an IR beacon system for MIT’s 6.270 autonomous robot contest. (There’s more info about it here) I was involved with organizing the contest for a few years, and the beacons they were using the first year I was there were very limited and cost a lot, so I convinced the other organizers to get the beacons from me if I could come up with something better.

What are the products you’re most proud of?
At this point, I’m still shooting for “not embarrassing”. Some of the products that fit that designation are our 3pi robot, Maestro servo controllers, and Wixel wireless modules. Those products have some decent engineering to them, we’ve sold thousands of them, and customers seem to like them.

What are your more popular products?
Besides the ones I just mentioned, some of the simple sensor and motor driver carriers are quite popular. It’s kind of frustrating when a really simple carrier sells more than a design we spend months on.

How many people do you have?
Around 45.

Why did you move to Nevada?
I think a lot of Nevada is quite different from Las Vegas, though I’ve only driven through Reno once. Las Vegas was appealing because it doesn’t get very cold, natural disasters are not very likely, and the business climate seemed relatively good (coming from Massachusetts). I like the idea of prostitution and gambling being legal in Nevada, even if I don’t engage in it (my gamble was coming to Las Vegas in the first place).

Is it true the taxes are less? Was that a reason?
I think so, and it definitely contributed to the decision. Unfortunately, having no income tax didn’t help that much when we weren’t making money, and the sales tax is pretty high (and keeps rising), which sucks when we’re buying equipment.

Is there a lot of space for a maker company to have machines like manufacturing equipment, etc.?
If you’re asking about commercial real estate space, there’s quite a bit available, though it can be difficult to find a space with the right mix of warehouse and office space for a company like ours. I am quite happy with the space we just moved to, where we have almost 40,000 square feet, of which about 12,000 is warehouse.

How is the maker scene out there? Are there hackerspaces and events in Nevada?
We helped start the Las Vegas robot club, LVBots, around 2004. Participation in that was decent and growing until around 2008; it dropped off quite a bit as Las Vegas got hit by the recession. Some of the LVBots members are involved in a Las Vegas hacker space (SYN Shop) that’s been slowly getting off the ground, but I have not been involved with it, so I do not really know what they are up to.

What products of yours are open-source hardware?

You’re in the maker world, but you do not release any of your products as open-source hardware, why?
There are many reasons, but they mostly boil down to not thinking it’s worth it from a business perspective. I am somewhat skeptical of companies pushing OSHW, so I think it would be disingenuous to use what I think is a gimmick to market a product. For instance, the 3pi robot I mentioned earlier has several custom mechanical parts, a patented circuit, and is done in Altium Designer, which costs over $5k per seat. I realize that some schools might have site licenses for Altium, but for the typical user, releasing the source documents would not mean much. We already provide schematics and explanations of how the thing works, the design is fairly well validated, and it’s not a particularly useful starting point for an improved design (e.g. one with a better processor), so the main entities actually getting something out of our releasing the source would be those trying to make knock-offs, and I’m fine with not giving them a shortcut.

In my previous article about Arduino being counterfeited you said “I do not think intellectual property is a morally valid concept, and I am all about freedom” – that comment surprised me and was the reason I wanted to do this interview, what did you mean?
My father escaped from communist Czechoslovakia when he was eighteen; he instilled in me a love of freedom. I think a lot of the problems in the world come from people thinking it’s okay to force others to do things, especially when that force is coming from a democratic society. Physical property must be protected since exclusivity is inherent in physical things (I no longer have something if you take it from me) and the rights to the result of your own work are fundamental to basic freedom. That is not the case with intellectual property: the primary purpose of that construct is to forcibly prevent people from doing things. If I invent a wheel, of course I would rather you give me something in exchange for me making you one, but it is not right for me to go beat you up or destroy your wheel if you make one yourself. Besides being immoral, intellectual property is also empirically bad for society; however, that should not really be relevant to the discussion, just as consideration of economic costs should be irrelevant when considering the morality of slavery.

Are there any products you plan to release as open-source hardware, if so which ones?
There’s nothing specific in the works. The most likely candidates are supporting boards for something like a mechanical chassis. But since the hardware would support a proprietary product (the chassis) and be done in Altium, I don’t think we would make a big deal of it.

You had mentioned you filed a patent or attempted to, what was it for?
US patent 7781920 is for the pushbutton power switch we use in several of our products. To those that might think it’s hypocritical to think patents are bad and then to get one, I think it’s acceptable to play by the rules while saying the rules are bad. I doubt that getting a lot of patents will be part of our long-term strategy, and participating in the system might give more credibility to my criticisms of it.

You also “DRM” your bootloaders, why? Has it helped protect your intellectual property? Did it work, has anyone cracked it?
I think it’s not quite right to call it DRM, in the sense that we do not talk about selling that secured firmware. We sell, for instance, a servo controller, and once you buy it, you have it. The servo controller has the capability of being updated, but we do not sell the updates or try to limit you to using a particular update on a particular servo controller. Anyway, we secure the bootloaders so that people cannot copy our designs too easily. We shoot for a level of security such that it would be easier to just rewrite the firmware from scratch than to try to crack the security. I don’t know if anyone has cracked it. You seemed to think there was no room for secrets in my freedom principle. Secrets are fine in that you do not owe it to anyone to tell them things you do not want to, and you should not be forced to tell others something.

What new products are working on?
We just released the mechanical part of our new Zumo robot, which in some sense has been in development for almost 5 years. We will be working on electronics for that such as an Arduino shield and stand-alone controllers.

Where can people see some Pololu hardware in person?
Counting our electronics boards and mechanical parts like wheels and brackets, we’ve sold hundreds of thousands of units, so chances are that something we made is in a maker project near you. We’re also happy to give tours and show people our products in person, so if you’re interested and in Vegas, let us know.

Again, I’d like to thank Jan for answering these questions over email. Makers, post up any follow questions in the comments!

49 thoughts on “MAKE’s Exclusive Interview with Jan Malasek from Pololu

  1. Andrew says:

    Well said. I think open sourcing is too often used as a marketing tactic. I also love the stance on IP – enforcement by secrecy rather than litigation.

    1. Phillip Torrone says:

      hi andrew, who specifically is using open-source as a marketing tactic and how?

  2. anon maker says:

    His tone came across very defensive in the article. I don’t think I will buy Pololu products or include them in my designs. They have every right to be as closed-source as they wish, and I have every freedom to not support that. I’m going to go buy some StepSticks right now. Thanks Phillip.

    1. Jan Malasek says:

      Is it possible to answer questions such as, “why don’t you do open-source” or, “why do you DRM your bootloaders” in a way that you would not characterize as “defensive”?

      1. Phillip Torrone says:

        i think it’s great that jan talked about his company and took on some tough questions in response to what i thought were interesting statements about oshw. i really don’t want to ever cover -only- oshw companies, i think there’s room at MAKE for an entire spectrum of business models and philosophies. pololu makes great products, i wanted to know more :)

    2. zing says:

      Contrarywise, I found his statements about locking down bootloaders refreshingly honest. Unlike most people that make annoying DRM encumbered products, e.g. Sony, he expects the DRM to be broken and is relatively cool with that. He doesn’t expect the legal system to enforce it, he just won’t make it easy.

      That’s nice for those who break it, because they like a challenging competitor who knows when they are beaten over someone half trying just so they can invoke a law. And it actually makes me want to buy, despite the locked down code.

  3. MAKE’s Exclusive Interview with Jan Malasek from Pololu Alicia Gibb says:

    Your viewpoint has many things I haven’t considered, and makes me think, I like thinking! Thank you for making me think. Some of your comments seem contradictory though, so I think I may be reading them wrong. I’m hoping you can clarify for me.

    “I am somewhat skeptical of companies pushing OSHW, so I think it would be disingenuous to use what I think is a gimmick to market a product.”

    During the Open Hardware Summit, Ayah and I made up a term we called “Open Washing” which were big business that were using the term but not actually open sourcing their products, which was how we knew we were on the right track to something good – the big players wanted a piece. Since it seems contradictory to say the same companies that give away their designs and part of their market, knowingly making less of a profit than they could, would be doing so as a gimmick, (these would be the companies that frequent Make blogs, Adafruit, Evil Mad Scientist, Makerbot, Sparkfun, etc. following the definition of open source hardware and sharing their files for people to rebuild, remix, and resell) I can only assume you mean the larger companies trying to open wash to be part of the movement. Is that what you’re talking about? If so, what are the consequences that you see of big businesses with open washing? So far, I’ve seen it as a nod in the right direction, even though they don’t get the spirit yet.

    In the next question, it sounds like you’re saying freedom is the way to go (I agree, freedom is great and I have no experience other than freedom). It seems like competition would signify a healthy marketplace, and the best way competition can be achieved is a freedom your design; letting everyone copy your designs so that you have to continuously remain on your feet rather than being stagnant for 20 years worth of exclusive rights (patent). It’s essentially Darwinism, may the best design win. So I’m confused on where you see a difference between IP and patents and which one exactly is freedom? To me they are one in the same, and I agree that both patents and IP are overall bad for society, but I fail to see any discretion between the two. They both go against the grain of basic information needs and education, information does not work the way that physical things do: “(I no longer have something if you take it from me)” but ideas and education can flow freely. If I teach someone how to do something, I still have the knowledge of how to do it as well, that knowledge does not leave me like a physical thing does. Are these the sentiments you’re getting at, or am I misconstruing your beliefs here?

    At a recent panel session to the US Congress, Bunnie Huang brought up an interesting sentiment that patents were a very US state of mind, and that other places in the world, such as China, do not have patents, and when you see something you might remake it. Physical things get copied by the sheer nature of reverse engineering and that you can simply see the design (the Louis V. purses mentioned by Phil on Canal Street). In other parts of the world US patents have no legal standing. As the global economy takes over, how do you see patents in relation to the American mindset vs. the global economy?

    Alicia Gibb
    (My opinions are my own, not speaking on behalf of any group I may be coordinating.)

    1. Jan Malasek says:


      You’re welcome, and thank you. I’m always concerned I’m just saying obvious and boring things.

      On the gimmick thing: I do not believe companies embracing OSHW are “knowingly making less of a profit than they could”. I think they cannot know, and I think they hope it is overall a good thing for themselves; therefore, couching their actions as selfless would be gimmicky. Anyway, that was not my point. The point is that if I sincerely think there is little to no value to my customer in my releasing source documents, doing so would be a gimmick because it would be solely for creating (or reinforcing) a false sense of added value. I was not commenting on other companies, but here’s my take on that: one company’s design could actually have value, and another’s proprietors might just be sincerely mistaken in thinking their source documents are valuable; in those cases, pushing the open-source aspect would not be a gimmick. By the way, you saw enough cases of businesses using OSHW in a gimmicky way that you came up with a term for it; do you think only big businesses would do that?

      I was not making a distinction between IP and patents. By the way, if you’ve lived in the US, it’s very likely you experienced something “other than freedom”; it’s too bad you did not notice it. For instance, you have to put up with the patent system, which you apparently think is limiting freedom.

      I think there is little value to my view of “patents in relation to the American mindset vs. the global economy” since I do not know what is going on. I have the impression that patents are being pushed as part of being modern and civilized and democratic, which would be unfortunate.

      – Jan

  4. vic says:

    I think you are in a contradiction. On one hand you say that intellectual property is not a morally valid concept, on the other hand you take defensive measures like patents, code block protection or secrecy to protect your intellectual property. If intellectual property is not something that should exist then you must accept being copied. One does not go without the other.

    My personal opinion is that patents are a plague that prevent innovation. The foundation of human progress is to improve upon what others before us have created. A patent forbids this process for a certain number of years and effectively slows down progress.

    If you want to fight the ever increasing power of intellectual property, then release your designs in the public domain. Working with the system, even to defend yourself, only makes it stronger.

    1. Jan Malasek says:

      Intellectual property as it exists now is not morally valid because it involves forcibly intruding in others’ lives. Secrets do not have that characteristic. Think of the wheel example: how would you assert your claim of intellectual property on the person that copied your wheel? Do you see how that’s fundamentally different from just never showing the other person your wheel, or not showing them how you made it?

      I agree with you that patents are bad for society in the way you characterize (but that’s separate from the morally invalid thing).

      I am not convinced that “working with the system” is always bad; practically speaking, the only way not to work with the existing systems would be to go shut yourself off from society and live in the middle of a forest or on some island.

      – Jan

    2. skm says:

      Could it be that things have changed in our society and our patent system needs updated?

      When patents/patent office were started, 2 things:
      1. the time-to-market, if you had to manufacture something back then (build a factory, etc) is vastly different from how we do it today. you can have prototypes of cast and machined items in weeks, not years, today. So protecting an idea for 17 years might have been necessary at one time, but maybe today it should be 3 years or 5 years?

      2. The stated purpose of the patent system was to force inventors to release them to the public domain, by guaranteeing that after a certain time, the idea ceased to be your intellectual property and became available to the public. Prior to that, keeping an industrial secret *secret* was the only way of protecting it, so ideas never got into the public domain–instead remained a “secret” of the inventor for his lifetime.

      I agree with you about intellectual property being a different case.
      I think only physical things should be patentable, not processes or software or other things that fall under the IP description.

  5. Jorgen Knavis says:

    Jan hit the nails on the head.

    Open source software is one thing. Why not come up with the best possible UI, clean firmware, improves ease of use of existing products. This is great.

    When you make Hardware open-source, what happens is you find companies like Adafruit, and some others that basically take your design, don’t necessarily improve upon, but change it enough to so it fits within their OSHW (cleverly) self-written definition, and use their production machines to pump out their version, for cheap, market saturations.

    Funny how Phil, you are president of Adafruit, and at the same time writer on Make. Does Make own Adafruit? Or is this interest conflict?

    I am hobbyist and engineer in Oslo, sorry for my english.

    1. Phillip Torrone says:

      hi jorgen,

      your statements are not correct.

      1) MAKE does not own adafruit (they are one of our resellers, among hundreds).

      2) i help run adafruit, but i am not the president of adafruit. adafruit is 100% owned by the founder and engineer, limor fried.

      3) adafruit does not “take designs” and “not improve upon” them. we do open-source hardware and software. please provide any examples of an open source adafruit product that you feel was “taken” and not “improved upon”.

      4) please provide specific examples of adafruit products that used “production machines to pump out their version, for cheap, market saturations”.

      5) the OSHW definition was not self-written by myself or adafruit, it was written, discussed and signed by hundreds of people and companies.

      6) what conflict of interest to you see with me interviewing jan for an article on MAKE? wouldn’t it be in my best interests -not- to interview a company with a different point of view regarding open source?

      let me know if have any questions.

  6. Miles F. Bintz II says:

    If you don’t believe a concept is “morally valid” but participate in the practice, what does that say about your character? Sorry, but your arguments don’t hold water and I don’t trust anyone that is willing to compromise themselves.

    Intellectual Property and Open Source are driven by two different motivations, two different axes if you will. IP is absolutely a “morally valid” concept! (Except, perhaps, when holding/releasing IP is the difference between life and death). You could argue that enforcing IP protection is legislatively impossible but not morally/conceptually invalid.

    Intellectual Property
    IP and capitalism are tightly coupled. If someone had a highly profitable idea and the idea is extremely clever, in principle, they should be afforded some protection to allow them to capitalize on that idea. They productize the idea and sell millions of them and some curious customers say, “Hey, that’s cool! How does it work?” The clever customers (we, the geeks) set about reverse-engineering it. Since we now own the product, we’re free to take it apart, mutilate it, modify it, etc. If we’re so inclined we can flash our own software onto it, etc. Throughout this process you may discover the mechanisms behind the clever idea, you may write a blog post and tell everyone else how to disassemble and mutilate their version of the product, and that’s all fine and good.

    If you’re an inventor and want to profit on your idea then obviously your idea must be productized for the world to see (and buy) but you can’t simultaneously, effectively, stop people from learning about how your idea(s) work.

    Nowhere in the aforementioned process did you earn yourself the RIGHT to commercially [re]apply an idea which an inventor reserved it for themselves. If you can do it better, if you can do it different, then awesome! Do it! But just as an author reserves all rights with a copyright, an inventor reserves their rights with a patent. This is an ethically, morally, and conceptually legitimate thing to do.

    That being said, the mechanism(s) on which patents rely and the byproducts of using those mechanisms (ie. patent trolls), I think is abhorrent and wholly dysfunctional. If someone comes up with a better way of implementing and enforcing patents, maybe they could patent it :) If, however, we all agree that we should have a right to reserve our ideas for our own profitability (at least for some period of time), then we should all have mutual respect for each other’s ideas and refrain from stealing them.

    (One can make an argument that ideas/technology that aide in the advancement of humanity (like cures for disease) should not be reserved for profitability. But certainly not all ideas fall in this category.)

    Open Source
    What is the motivation behind Open Source? Open Source is designed to reserve your right, both as an author and as an end user, to ensure that everyone downstream to yourself has the right and ability to learn about how that product works. “You are free to modify and redistribute the work as long as… you include all source, preserve attribution/copyright, include this license, etc…” Take, learn, modify, spread, repeat. It is the driving force behind Linux and many other great Open Source projects.

    Open Source is orthogonal to commercial application. Nothing says you that can’t profit from the application of Open Source. It merely states that if you purchase a product with Open Source that you have a right to see how those Open Source bits work. Essentially you’re not paying for the Open Source product, you’re paying for the value-add that others built around the Open Source.

    Indeed, if Open Source and commercial application were fundamentally incompatible then Linux (for example) wouldn’t be where it is today. The fact that it has commercial value is what motivates companies like Red Hat, IBM, VMWare, etc, to invest in and enhance it. Which builds more value, which builds more users, which builds more value, etc…

    Similarly, Open Source HW can have a commercially motivated aspect to it. If I’m making a product that is a building block to a larger eco-system then there needs to be a means by which I can ensure all players in the ecosystem are good citizens and help build the value of the ecosystem rather than simply absorb value from the ecosystem.

    Again, IF you profit, you’re not profiting from the Open Source ideas themselves, you’re profiting from the value-add you put around those ideas. In the case of OSHW, you’re designing the hard parts like clocking and power, etching boards, providing connectors, soldering parts, etc. You take one product that’s not directly usable for the masses (a micro-controller IC, for example) and make it viable for the masses. The by-product is that all customers also know how to make compatible products.

    1. johngineer says:

      “Open Source is orthogonal to commercial application. Nothing says you that can’t profit from the application of Open Source. It merely states that if you purchase a product with Open Source that you have a right to see how those Open Source bits work. Essentially you’re not paying for the Open Source product, you’re paying for the value-add that others built around the Open Source.”

      nailed it x 1000.

    2. Anonymous says:

      IP is *not* a morally valid concept. Unless your morality condones creation of artificial scarsity and claims to the contents of the people minds. Which is exactly what IP is about. To illustrate. You had an idea. I came on the same idea, either by my own or by examining your work. So I have the copy of same idea. But you claim IP on your copy of idea, so that I cannot freely exercise my copy. Thus you claim rights on the contents of my mind and the manner of my expression. Which is actually just an obfuscated attempt at owning a person. Now, you obviously do not consider it is morally correct to claim ownership to another persons body do you? Slavery and stuff.. So why it should be morrally correct to claim ownership to another persons mind or expression?

      1. Miles F. Bintz II says:

        > IP is *not* a morally valid concept. Unless your morality condones creation of artificial scarsity and claims to the contents of the people minds. Which is exactly what IP is about. To illustrate. You had an idea. I came on the same idea, either by my own or by examining your work.

        1. Good ideas ARE scarce. That’s why they’re worth protecting.
        2. To say that “I claim a right to the contents of your mind” is hyperbole. No one is trying to do that. They’re simply protecting their own idea.

        What you’re touching on is a problem with the implementation of the protection of IP. If we simultaneously arrive at the same idea then we should have equal rights to our own ideas. The problem is that one can’t prove whether they arrive at an idea on their own or by stealing someone else’s (this we have the first-come/first-serve and prior-art problem). Another aspect of the patent mechanism that is poorly implemented in the US is that people at the patent office don’t properly apply the “obvious” filter.

        Neither of those problems invalidate the morality of owning your ideas.

    3. Jan Malasek says:


      It’s difficult to find consistent moral principles (beyond the likes of “look out for number one” or “nothing matters”); you should still look for them, and it doesn’t help to dismiss everyone in whom you see an inconsistency as pernicious or unworthy of honest debate. Your assessment of my character is irrelevant to the discussion since I am not suggesting anyone should accept my statements on trust: I am presenting my principles and considering their ramifications. Skepticism is fine, but do it with reason.

      IP and capitalism are tightly coupled in practice now only because ownership of ideas is allowed, just as slavery and capitalism were tightly coupled when ownership of humans was allowed; neither pair is tightly coupled in principle.

      Regarding your comments on original inventor protection and others not earning the right to the idea, you’re missing the point that others always had the right to the idea, and you’re trying to take it away in the name of protection. Consider the wheel example again: if there’s a bunch of free people who don’t know about wheels, they still each have the right to make a wheel, right? A right to something like that is independent of the knowledge or means to carry it out. “Protecting” the first one to stumble onto the wheel (even if he put a lot of effort into it) is not recognizing his right: it’s denying everyone else the rights they had all along.

      For those who keep asking about the IP/secret distinction, that first wheel-maker does have the right not to tell others how to make a wheel, just as he and everyone one else always did. The others, of course, do not have the right to torture that info out of him. To switch from a prehistoric case to a futuristic one, does each of us right now have the right to go to Mars using some home-built device? Does each of us have the right not to tell the rest of us how to do it? I suspect everyone would say yes and yes. The sad thing to me is that most people think the answers should change should one person figure out how to do it.

      – Jan

      1. Miles F. Bintz II says:


        Consistent principles are indeed hard to come by. BUT just because they’re hard to find and harder to maintain/execute doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stick to our own just because, well, it’s legal, so why not?

        By that reasoning, I could be the dick-wad that drives down the vacated and soon-ending lane on a highway to cut a line of traffic. It’s legal, so why not? Instead, I waste hours of my life sitting in traffic because I’m not entitled to cut to the head of the line. There is no reward in this other than knowing that I’ve maintained my values. Survival of the fittest would dictate that this is illogical and yet 95% of the considerate humans on this planet abide by this social courtesy. Why is that? But that’s off topic…

        In order to successfully make an analogy between ownership of ideas and ownership of humans would require you to establish that /ideas themselves/ have the same innate equality and liberty that a human being has. Since ideas are not living beings they have no such equality. I get what you’re saying: ideas should be as free as people. But saying that they “should be” by means of an analogy does not establish the reasoning itself.

        First off we should be more specific than ‘idea’. Because there are really two types. 1. Scientific or mathematical principle. 2. An invention. The prior is not patentable nor is it truly secret since we’re surround by the nature of the universe in which we live, even if its not obvious (quantum physics, for example). The latter is specific to a person or small group of people (who may be independent of each other) who applied some collection of the prior to create something unique.

        To your wheel analogy: even if I have the patent on the wheel and you make one for yourself, it doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t matter unless you mass produce that wheel for others.

        The wheel analogy is a bad one in my opinion because it tricks people into thinking about the mathematical properties of a circle which is not patentable. A patent on a wheel would not be valid if it were “an apparatus by which the outside edge is equidistant from a center point and the circumference of that edge is proportional to 2*Pi *R”. Well, duh. There are, in fact, many inventions that /are/ unique to a particular implementation of a wheel. Spokes, bearings, cross-section of a rim, manufacturing technique, braking method, etc. When you think about the latter inventions, you can see that they’re far less obvious than the circle itself and could merit a patent.

        Are people entitled to the profits which are a result of their labor? Are peopled entitled to own things which they purchase? Surely you believe they are if you’re trumpeting the freedoms of the USA. If not, you’re a socialist (in the real sense, not the Fox News sense) and that’s okay — but we’ll never reach an agreement since our fundamental principles are inherently different.

        Does a burglar complain that laws against breaking and entering limit their freedoms? If you leave the doors of your house unlocked, do I have the freedom to enter and take your possessions?

        Inventions are the fruits of labor. They are the results of iterating over an effort to learn, an investment of time and materials, and failures.

        A patent is not a claim of rights to anyone’s mind. A patent is issued on a first-come first-serve basis for unique inventions. The act of me filing a patent does not remove any of your rights to conceive the same invention and implement it. I am not missing this point at all. What it /does/ is stop you from mass producing and profiting from that same invention. Not fair? Well, I’m in no way claiming that the patent system is perfect. Far from it. But I’d wager that if you and I had the same idea and we both went about implementing it, chances are: the end result would be different in some way. And if they ARE exactly the same, then chances are it’s not a valid patent anyway (it fails the ‘obvious to those skilled in the field’ test).

        Furthermore, patents and ‘rights to ideas’ (lets call ‘rights to ideas’ ‘open source’ for short) are not, actually, incompatible.

        Consider, for example, MPEG. Sarnoff owns the patent. There are plenty of open source implementation of this invention. You and I can download them, learn it, tweak it, push it back upstream, etc. I can implement my own decoder essentially using the patent as my data sheet, I can publish this on my blog and that’s fine. Why? Because I’m not selling it. I have every right to do this as an individual. I have no right to do this as a corporation (and I believe Canonical refrains from shipping some CODECs by default for this reason).

        So where was freedom limited here?

        If inventions are the results of labor and if we’re entitled to possess the fruits of our labor then, by extension, we’re entitled to the possession of and all rights to our inventions (the invention itself, not just an instantiation of it).


        1. skm says:

          Let me butt in here…
          Part of your statement is not correct. It is commonly thought that you can make anything for yourself, even if it is patented, you just cannot go in to production making them for others. That is not the case. There is no exclusion in patent law for “personal use”.
          If someone has a patent–you cannot make it for yourself to use.

          The only exclusion is something made for research or experimentation (have to look up exact wording), but it does not give you the right to make a patented item for your own use.

  7. johngineer says:

    Jan can run his business in any manner he chooses, but personally I think he’s wrong.

    I think I understand his position regarding intellectual property: he’s fine with people making the same things he’s making, but he doesn’t want to make it easy for them to copy his exact work, to the point that he DRMs the firmware. He’s entitled to do that if he wishes, but it seems to me to be a huge waste of energy. As a customer, I don’t want to pay for that. That is, I don’t want part of my money to go towards subsidizing the development of restricted firmware and (possibly) the augmented hardware required to run it. This isn’t because I believe he’s wrong, but rather because I think it’s totally unnecessary and pragmatically misguided.

    Regarding his comment that (he believes) open-source hardware is a ‘gimmick’ — that’s fine. I think DRM is a gimmick. For all the claims of it’s effectiveness, it doesn’t seem to actually prevent theft of anything. Rather, the only thing I’ve ever seen it accomplish is widespread customer alienation and bad will. The only thing DRM does give you is grounds to pursue litigation if it’s compromised — which is a nice way of restricting others of their freedom if you’re into that sort of thing.

    1. Jan Malasek says:


      That sounds pretty melodramatic, especially given that you don’t know how much energy we put into our encryption schemes. The reality is that it was not that much effort, and thinking about that kind of stuff should be a fun and educational exercise for any programmer.

      I don’t understand your gimmick comment. It comes across to me as an, “Oh yeah? Your mom’s a gimmick!” kind of retort. I wasn’t touting our secure bootloader as some kind of effective feature; I think I generally downplay it. Maybe the gimmick is that there is no security feature, and I’m just making you all think there is one! Or maybe the gimmick is that I’m saying it’s not very secure so as to trick you into wasting time breaking into fourteen impenetrable layers of steel-reinforced encryption…

      Seriously, though: you have got to be exaggerating when you say things like, “[DRM] doesn’t seem to actually prevent theft of anything. Rather, the only thing I’ve ever seen it accomplish is widespread customer alienation and bad will”, right? I’ve seen all kinds of copies of our products and pictures and web pages, and I’m sure there would be more knock-offs if people could trivially read the firmware off the microcontrollers. I don’t think we suffer from widespread customer alienation and bad will, at least not because of our bootloaders.

      – Jan

  8. MAKE’s Exclusive Interview with Jan Malasek from Pololu Alicia Gibb says:

    @Miles F. Bintz II, @johngineer couldn’t agree with your comments more! +1


  9. Jan Malasek says:

    Hi, guys.

    I just posted some more thoughts on OSHW on my blog at I didn’t add anything about the IP stuff, though, which it seems like most of the comments here are about. I’ll try to respond to the comments soon.

    – Jan

  10. Ray Weaver says:

    Much of the preceding discussion about the intellectual property (notably excepting @Miles F. Blintz II, with whom I largely agree) is badly confused because (a) the concept of IP has been misused, and (b) the idea of IP is being conflated with its practice.

    First, the term IP is not equivalent to “patents”. The U.S. recognizes several other forms of IP, including copyright, trademarks, and trade secrets. (It’s ironic that Jan repeatedly asserts the legitimacy of his company’s trade secrets, which are as I mentioned one flavor of intellectual property: it’s neither legal nor moral for me to break into his Las Vegas offices and steal them.) Keeping in mind the correct conception, I think, helps expose why the stance that IP is “morally invalid” is badly misguided.

    Suppose that I write a novel, which takes me several years. I obtain a copyright on my work, then go about the business of trying to secure a publisher and sell it. If IP is morally invalid, then (i) it’s moral for you to take my work, word for word, and publish it on your own without obtaining my permission, giving me any credit, or compensating me; and (ii) it’s immoral of me to try to stop you from doing so. Another example: again, if IP is morally invalid, then it’s moral for me to open a coffee shop called “Starbucks,” copying the company’s logo and store layout precisely so as to benefit from the billions of dollars and decades of work the company has invested in building its brand and refining its concept; and it’s immoral of Starbucks to try to stop me. I think that a great majority of people would agree that in both examples, the *violations* of intellectual property, not the IP itself, are immoral. Jan asserts that “the primary purpose of that construct [IP] is to forcibly prevent people from doing things.” I suppose that’s one way to look at it, but I think that a better view is that IP’s primary purpose is to protect the freedom of individuals to create and extract value from things of value without worry that others will unfairly exploit their efforts, not to infringe on the “freedom” to engage in such exploitation. If I take Jan’s characterization to an extreme, I could argue that laws against assault are immoral because they forcibly prevent me from punching random strangers in the face. I think it’s clear that the freedom to go about one’s business without fear of violence supports, not undermines, legitimate freedoms.

    Jan also makes the claim that “intellectual property is also empirically bad for society.” This is patently false. Without intellectual property protections, an enormous amount of economic and social value would be lost because people in a position to create IP would have far smaller economic incentives to do so. Books, music, movies, software, pharmaceuticals, integrated circuits, brands, etc. etc. would be vastly less common, and of much lower quality, if anybody were permitted to take anything they wanted at any time without regard for its inventors and owners. The fact that countries with adequate intellectual property protections outperform others is, I think, incontrovertible. That some goods are physical (ie have non-trivial marginal cost of production) and others are virtual (ie have close to zero marginal cost) isn’t irrelevant, but is not in itself a moral license to steal assets created by others.

    The question of how various legal systems *define* and *enforce* intellectual property is quite separate from the morality of the underlying construct. But it’s an important question. I agree wholeheartedly that IP protections as constructed in the U.S. (for example) have some serious problems, the effect of which is both economically damaging and unfair to the point, I suppose, of reasonably being labelled “immoral.” For example, after RIM developed its push email technology, an obscure entity asserted patent infringement. RIM was ultimately forced to pay royalties in excess of $1B (I think), even though the consensus view was that (i) even though the patent owner had “prior art,” RIM developed its technology entirely independently, with no knowledge of the existing patent; (ii) the original entity never made any attempt to commercialize its invention; (iii) the patented IP was probably construed much too broadly, as is common with software patents; and (iv) the enormous value RIM had created was the result of lots of hard work in engineering, design, sales, marketing, operations, etc., and the proportion resulting from this particular IP was pretty small. Separately, a court found that a restaurant called “Elvis’s” in Texas (?) infringed on IP owned by the estate of Elvis Presley, even though the restaurant’s proprietor was named Elvis, and he made no attempt to create a rock & roll theme or do anything else that might reasonably be construed as an attempt to profit from the late singer’s likeness or body of work.

    These are just two examples of intellectual property protections run amok, to the detriment of legitimate economic interests and deeply offending our sense of what is fair. Reasonable people can disagree about the extent and duration of IP protections that are moral and provide the right balance of economic protections for creators against the rights of other individuals and society at large. But let’s not confuse these and other wrong-headed enforcements with what I believe is a simple truth: some protections for the rights of people who create things of value through investment of time, money, and talent — whether those things are made of wood, steel, words, or lines of code — are both in our collective economic interests and about as straightforwardly moral as I can imagine.

    For the record: I like Pololu (awful name notwithstanding), have bought things from them in the past, and will likely continue to do so. I also agree with Jan that simultaneously pursuing patents and criticizing the system isn’t hypocrisy. And as an aside, I love Adafruit and wholeheartedly share Phillip’s bewilderment towards @Jorgen Knavis’s claim that Adafruit somehow represents an unholy expression of the open source hardware movement.

    1. Jan Malasek says:


      Thanks for the clear presentation of what I suspect is the mainstream western mindset about IP. I will try to address concisely the points with which I disagree.

      I did not conflate IP and patents, but that’s beside the point. (That people sometimes bundle trade secrets in with IP is also beside the point: in not disclosing something I know, I am not claiming ownership of an idea; although I am not helping them get there, everyone else is still free to have and use that idea.) The basic idea of IP is that ideas can be owned, and in questioning the moral validity of the construct, we must consider what it means to enforce that construct. To consider the basic principle, I think it’s not necessary to go beyond examples like the basic ones I laid out earlier (though I would be interested in how you address them or why they are not valid simplifications).

      The book example you have is one of the less pleasant ones, but you have to consider the alternative: we have to choose between letting someone copy your work and letting you go beat someone up (or destroy their printing press or imprison them or whatever). Faced with that choice, I say that allowing the copying is the more morally valid stance. If not, where does it end? Can you forever own a sentence? What about the idea of wearing some combination of colors? If you are saying it’s morally wrong to let others copy ideas owned by others, that should not change because of passage of time: do you think IP should have no expiration? Or do you think you shouldn’t be able to own physical things that are older than 20 years or 95 years or whatever other arbitrary threshold?

      I think trademarks are a somewhat separate issue, and I think I am okay with some limited trademark arrangement on the grounds that it is a defense against fraud. In other words, making a Starbucks copy is not okay because it would be presenting yourself as that other organization. (I think the current system in the US has too much of the IP side and I don’t think UPS should get to trademark being a brown delivery company. With something like “iPad”, I think Apple should only get to complain about “Apple iPad” usage, and Dell and Samsung and ASUS should get to make their own iPads if they want, too. Also, with limited short strings available, I think a computer company should be able to call itself “Apple2” or “AppleSony”, and Mike Rowe should get to run Mike Rowe Soft.)

      Your saying my argument is equivalent to arguing for allowing assaults is an unfortunately common knee-jerk response that shows a basic misunderstanding of the argument. It’s exactly for the same reason that it’s not okay to just go assaulting someone that it’s not okay to just go assaulting someone because they “stole my idea”. The whole point is that “stealing an idea” is not a valid concept; I also cannot go assault someone because they “stole my wife” (assuming she was willing, not kidnapped).

      Regarding the “empirically bad” comment, you realize that just listing positives of IP is not an argument, right? I think it’s a difficult argument to make either way because of the lack of data. For instance, do you know of any advanced society that has strong property rights but no IP rights? I think an IP-less world would be so different that it’s difficult to imagine, and the costs of our IP infrastructure are difficult to see, except in the really blatant cases like the ones you mentioned. One thing you can look at is what happens when key patents expire, and I think it tends to be a burst of innovation and human progress. You can argue that without IP, the key innovation would not have ever existed (or existed as early); I suspect that is rarely the case. To tie it in to the maker crowd: I have heard that the recent explosion in 3D printers is happening now because of the expiration of some patents; I would be interested if anyone has something to back that up.

      Thanks for your support of Pololu, awful name and all. Let’s hope that, like people with “great personalities”, we can make up for our shortcoming with extra good products.

      – Jan

  11. datamanlv says:

    Jan, Thank you for a being in the forefront of the Vegas Maker Community. I really appreciated all that you do for technology as a whole and for hobbyists everywhere.

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