Open Source Ethics and Dead End Derivatives

Update: The source files have been documented and that documentation can be found here. They are PDFs for now, which is a first step towards publishing the source files. The original files are still not there. If you’d like to see the original files these are derived from to compare, you can find the motherboard here, the stepper driver here, the extruder controller here, and the endstop here,

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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!

Note: See the update above. The documentation process is in process.

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 published.

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!

Photo credit – Creative Commons Share Alike: gfpeck