attribution, share alike, and an innovative market. It’s also important to
remember a patent does not stop an
invention from being copied, a lawsuit
does. Patents are only as good as the
amount of money you have to litigate.
Imagine spending the same money on
research and development instead.
You cut out those fees by open sourcing the hardware.
Regardless of the intellectual property a product is attached to, if your
product can be sold, it will be sold.
Open source hardware rides at the
front of the wave rather than being
A SUCCESS STOR Y
Many examples of open source hardware spurring competition have
played out in the market. The Fio was
an open source development board
co-designed by Shigeru Kobayashi
and SparkFun to enable wireless communication with the ease of programming in Arduino. [Nathan Seidle, the
co-author of this article, is the founder
of SparkFun.] The Fio was well received, and two months later a competing product, Fio Remixed, showed
up on a Chinese website called SeeedStudio (see Figure 3).
Fast forward a few months, the
founder of SparkFun was able to meet
up with the man behind the Fio Remixed (see Figure 4). Eric Pan runs
Seeed Studio. He kept the license intact, gave attribution where required,
and improved the design using parts
easier to find. This story is proof that
we must innovate, and do so constantly. Intellectual property allows for
some protection, albeit at a legal expense. We use open source hardware
as a way to stay sharp.
SeeedStudio stopped selling the
Fio after a few months. When Eric was
asked why, he said it was a poor seller.
Interestingly, the Fio was a market success for Spark Fun. It is now on the fifth
version and there’s still ways to make
it better. T wo companies can have very
similar products; what they should
compete on is customer service, availability, quality, price, features, and usability, not who has more patents.
Today SparkFun and SeeedStudio
are both wildly successful companies.
Why? Because both innovate and cre-
litigate against those who infringe.
And for what? Having a 20-year mo-
nopoly on an idea can be poisonous to
companies that must innovate daily in
order to keep pace in a global market.
Sitting on your laurels due to IP pro-
tection is a sure-fire way to miss out on
cutting-edge, market-making ideas.
Patents are geographically locked,
expensive, and tie up innovation for
too long of a period. The minimum
patent fee only provides protection
in one country, but the global market
makes it difficult to keep things in
The process of patents and open
source hardware isn’t really that dif-
ferent. Both instances require docu-
mentation of the innovation, making
the documentation public, and filing
the documentation. Patents are filed
at the Patent and Trademark Office,
whereas open source hardware is filed
with the internet. With open source
hardware, there is no monopoly ap-
plied, but the creator is awarded with
ate the right products for the right cus-
tomer. Competition is good for a com-
pany. Both SparkFun and SeeedStudio
are better because of it.
LE T’S TALK FOUNDERS
There’s an allure to starting a business with a best friend or roommate.
But the most important aspect is to be
founders with someone you’d marry.
No really, ask yourself if you would
marry this person. Daily decisions will
need to be made about finances, office
management, direction, and so on.
These are big decisions not to be taken
lightly and require excellent communication. We’ve observed an odd number of founders also works well.
Venture capitalists (VCs) rarely see
the benefits of open hardware, forcing a founder’s hand to be closed. VCs
are in business just like you are. Their
business is to make the most profit
from the companies they invest in.
Their profit is their best interest, not
your company. Diane Mulcahy, a former VC, wrote about the “ 6 Myths of
VC Funding” in the Harvard Business
Review, which we highly recommend
reading [ 3]. Taking venture capital
means giving up a part of the company to a VC, this includes IP. Make
sure your VCs are aligned with your
values. If all parties are on board
with the openness of your company,
you can avoid a painful separation
down the road.
EN TREPRENEURIAL S TAR TUP TIPS
There are many similarities between
starting a business that builds open
source hardware as one that builds
closed hardware. The majority of problems in open hardware companies are
business problems, not open source
problems [ 4]. Choosing to run an open
source company can be lucrative and
reap the benefits of happy customers.
Here are some of our tips about entrepreneurship and open source
hardware, which we’ve shared with
students from various classes at the
University of Colorado Boulder
Set expectations unabashedly. This
goes for quality as well as transparency. There is no worse customer experience than seeing something amazing online, only to receive a product
or service that is far below what the
Figure 1: The communal open source
hardware logo. CC BY-SA.
Figure 2: The Open Source Hardware
Association certification logo.
Copyright OSH WA.