Friday, September 28, 2012

The institutionalization of OSHW -- a disturbing trend

Yesterday the Open Source Hardware Summit was held at Eyebeam in New York City.  While there was a lot of awesome projects, in this post I want to write about a disturbing trend of some of the largest players.

Open Source Hardware

First, just to set the stage, as I'm sure everyone in the community knows, MakerBot is closing some of the files in the Replicator 2.  AFAIK what portions exactly were not announced until the summit, and to credit Bre (or cynically, to credit him for backpedaling), it turns out that only the plans for the steel structure and the GUI will be closed.  But once that door gets opened...

This was not the only presentation on this topic... in fact there were several talks presenting an attitude along the lines of:  "Well, 99% of our customers just change the software so as we explore business models, maybe we'll just open source that...".  For example, in the keynote speech (of all places) Chis Anderson mentioned that some of his planes' extruded parts are not open because nobody but knock-off fabricators have extruders.  Well, nobody except this guy who made a DIY extruder I guess.  And couldn't you print them in a Reprap?

Ok fine, I understand the need to discourage knock-offs.  But if you do this you are NOT 100% Open Source Hardware.  You are trading the openness of some aspects of your design for the ability to make a good profit on your work, which you use to fund more cool projects!  Its actually great in many ways.  You've rediscovered the motivation behind intellectual property.  But let's not lie about it.  Let's be honest and let the customers decide whether your product is open enough.

FCC Compliance

A bit later, a representative from Sparkfun stepped up to speak about FCC compliance.  He explained to us what he called the "good news":  its actually only about 1000 bucks to get tested (ignoring your time and effort to get it done) if you are an "unintentional radiator" (that is you don't use wireless).  If you do, I may misremember but its 10k USD.  And by the way, kits, partial products, etc are not exempt so pay up!  Also, amazingly enough if you make 5+ items for your personal use, pay up.  But 1-4 is fine.  Of course this is only for the USA.  There's a similar but different regulatory body in every other country.

A chilling effect settled over the crowd.

All of this was delivered in a happy cheery tone because as we learned, "straight from the horse's mouth" so to speak, this guy previously worked for the FCC for 5 years!

I can't resist a momentary troll:  I'm imaging this guy running around the OSHWA demo area on his mobile reporting us to his cronies in Washington.  Sorry Sparkfun, but you should not hire an ex-FCC guy to do the FCC-compliance job.  You should hire a protestor.  And not just to prove a point -- but because enthusiastic people tend to magnify their jobs.

Did you sit under that LED dome? -- turn it off -- it was made from 5 identical driver modules.  How about those fabric artists and electric ink?  Turn 'em all off.  And there was an amazing talk about testing radioactivity levels in Japan after the nuclear disaster  And not surprisingly, it was discovered that the Japanese government was not reporting these radiation levels.  If this had happened in the USA, as far as I can tell the FCC could have shut them down under the 5 unit rule.  The problem with a technicality is that it can and has been used to keep the truth from the public. 
 While clearly some small oversight to ensure reasonable electronic emissions is needed for mass consumer devices (say greater than 50k units) the 5 unit rule (and many others) is clearly obsolete.  After all, I can get 10 PCBs from Seeedstudio for about 15 bucks.

You may roll your eyes a bit, but these sort of things really do have "a chilling effect".  In other words, an effect not instantly obvious but one that is certainly dampening innovation in America.   I would imagine that the effect happens most especially in areas such as education or outreach.    People won't go the next step and bring these PCBs to a school, etc.  Why get fined 7000 bucks for volunteer work?  And of course schools are incredibly sensitive to possible litigation, since the cost comes straight from the pockets of the townspeople who hire principals.

And even if in practice nobody will see your prototypes at home, let me point out that it is a very dangerous social situation to have citizens living in a constant state of breaking the law.

USB Connectivity

Next, we got to hear about USB from DangerousPrototypes.  Ian at least presented the information mostly neutrally.  (summary: 2000 bucks to get your company registered; nope nobody can sell you an ID).  However, it is clear in his opinion that squatting on an address is for hack-ups and should only be done by raw (never sold) prototypes.

Ian, I guess you forgot about sit-ins as a method of protest.

At an OSHWA summit meeting, I would have preferred a more critical treatment.  I have done a lot of research on this, since my Lightuino 5 board uses a USB microprocessor.  Everything presented is easily discovered on the web.  But unfortunately, the key issue was not addressed and barely mentioned:

If you choose to squat (vid: 0xF055 FTW!) is there ANYTHING the USB consortium can do about it?

Currently the answer seems to be no -- they have no legal control over those particular bits in the USB protocol.  In fact there seems to be no mechanism to even gain such control (hooray!).  And history seems to prove this out; all that they have ever done is kicked companies out of the consortium (in fact one such company is still selling VID/PIDs).

But if I was invited to take up ten minutes of 450 peoples' time, I would have presented a legal opinion.

So, its getting pretty clear that the many of our most prominent OSHW members and companies are growing up.

And let's be clear, I do not blame them for following these laws -- it is important to be a productive member of the society you choose to live within.  But I blame them for following them enthusiastically.  A person's ability and proclivity to make things is literally as much a part of us as is our hands.  Similarly, economic theorists affirm that a person's right to trade goods is fundamental to any society.  Please do your part to ensure these freedoms are not taken from us.


  1. Open Source Hardware
    It seams to me that this is about desinging a strategy to play the open (economic) game. I am constantly thinking about this problem. I am the co-founder of SENSORICA. Please take a look at my post "How to play the open game in the present and future economy"

    1. Very interesting... I'm going to take a closer look as I've also been considering the open company model:

      But recognize that many of us do not consider being open a "game" -- i.e. a means to making more money, but an end in itself. We believe that products that do not allow modification are removing an essential right of ownership, and we recognize a software "license" as a legal dodge aimed at removing commonly accepted ownership rights.

  2. Interesting FCC bit. It seems that, at least in the UK, that if you're a big corporation, you can create interference and the regulator couldn't care less. The powerline consortium's are putting very high levels of rf on un-shielded mains wiring in peoples home's and causing interference to amateur radio, OFCOM, the regulators are just ignoring it. Power of £ & $.

    1. Can you provide a link? I found this:
      but that does not talk about regulators turning a blind eye...