Open Source Ethics and Dead End Derivatives

Bryan Bishop kanzure at
Fri Mar 26 12:28:38 EDT 2010

I think this makes for an interesting case study of open source
hardware development, the reprap community and; also,
comments from the blog at the bottom, and some questions I raise are
at the very end.

Open Source Ethics and Dead End Derivatives

Open Source Hardware is hardware that has an open license. You can
copy it, develop it, and even sell it yourself. You must provide
attribution to the designer and you must also release the derivative
source files under the same license. This applies even if you use a
proprietary program for your designs.

Sometimes an individual or a company makes a derivative of an open
source project, goes to market with it and then doesn’t share their
derivative designs with their changes. This is not only against the
license, but it’s also not ethical. It is a dead end for the
innovation and development which is the heart of the open source
hardware community.

Right now there are some folks on the RepRap forums that are selling a
derivative of our electronics. They’ve stated that they’ve modified
our designs to make them more compact. There is absolutely nothing
wrong with creating a derivative and selling it as long as you provide
the source files.

The problem is that they have not published their source files. They
have promised to publish a PDF of a picture of the boards, which isn’t
sufficient and that promise was made a while ago. If you modify an
open source design, you are required to release your source files. If
you believe in the power of open source and community innovation,
you’ll release them in the preferred format for modification. A PDF of
the boards is not a format that invites modification.  Although gerber
files, which are the files generated for manufacturing electronics,
aren’t easy for the community to build on, they would have shown the
community what changed and been a step towards sharing source files.

What would have been awesome is if they had used our designs, improved
on them, and then published their source files. Just copying the
design doesn’t bring much innovation to the community and it’s not the
classiest move, but it’s within the license for anyone to copy us and
manufacture identical boards. If they were to share the design files,
we could see what they did to make them so tiny and the community
could learn from that. Not only does this impact us financially, but
most importantly it slows innovation within the community and sets a
bad example for all.

It’s theoretically possible that they have released their source files
and I couldn’t find them. If they exist, please comment below so that
if we are wrong, we can get the story straight!

At MakerBot, we take open source seriously. It’s a way of life for us.
We share our design files when we release a project because we know
that it’s important for our users to know that a MakerBot is not a
black box. With MakerBot, you get not only a machine that makes things
for you, but you also get an education into how the machine works and
you can truly own it and have access to all the designs that went into
it! When people take designs that are open and they close them, they
are creating a dead end where people will not be able to understand
their machines and they will not be able to develop on them.

Open source hardware relies on ethics to work. It’s possible to
legally chase down folks who break the terms of a license but in most
cases the community will usually take care of it by confronting
derivatives and not buying from individuals and companies that are
building on others work and not releasing their source. I wish there
was a public service announcement that would let people who are buying
open source electronics to make sure that the design files have been

The door is still open for them to make this right. From the tone of
their forum post, they are having trouble posting their files, which
is something that should have been done before they started selling
their derivative electronics kits. We invite them to send us an email
at contact(*at*)makerbot(*dot*)com with their derivative files and
we’ll publish them. If we have any updates, we’ll post them here.

Got an opinion? We’d love to hear it in the comments!

"Reading through the forum thread, it’s been re-created in a PCB
vendor locked environment (think PAD2PAD). The vast majority of these
don’t support Eagle .sch import so it’s almost certain they’ve
re-created the schematic and layout from scratch. How this fits into
the GPL requirements for a derivative work isn’t clear to me. It’s
been brought up with regard to software here and here (from a quick
google) but without a solid answer in either case."

"The point is that Open Source Hardware is in its infancy, and the
community at large is mostly ignorant of how to be good citizens.
Remember, be good and consider cleaning up your development processes
so it is easier to contribute to the latest designs. "

@Sebastien Bailard I don’t see this as a nasty note but more of a call
to action. The responses on the RepRap forums hadn’t gotten the files
published and it seemed like a good thing to step it up since it had
been almost two months since they went to market with their
electronics. I think we’re actually agreeing. As soon as the files are
up, I’m looking forward to pointing folks both to the documentation.
We’re on the same team. We’re all pushing forward the dream of a 3D
printed tomorrow and a healthy ecosystem with options supports that.
In this world of Open Source Hardware, there are some expectations
around publishing source code and I stand by my call to action to get
the design files published and I am glad you agree that it’s overdue.

Thank you for setting up the infrastructure for the future location of
the files. From the looks of your docs, there are significant changes
that have been made to the boards which is contrary to the way they
are described in the forum posts. I applaud your efforts to get the
documentation for these up on the internet.

"So, I still think it was inappropriate for Bre to use his blog as a
soapbox for public accusations / a call-to-action. A polite email to
me and Kimberly or a forum post by him inquiring as to the status of
the files would have warranted, perhaps."

"I think that Bre is right here. Makerbot released the boards under a
copyleft license, so Kimberly’s action in releasing a derivative
without the source is in violation of that license."

One of the main questions I see arising here is redistribution of
designs in different formats. Trying to distribute a PDF instead of an
editable file is bad tact; that would almost be like distributing
compiled object files instead of the original source, or compiled
python/php or something, which is only marginally better than just
distributing a raw binary I guess.

I liked this: "I wish there was a public service announcement that
would let people who are buying open source electronics to make sure
that the design files have been published." This could be as simple as
pinging a server and checking if there's general community consensus
on the licensing. More complicated ideas also exist (like OHANDA).

- Bryan
1 512 203 0507

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