Screaming Circuits: Open Source Mea Culpa or back pedaling? You decide


Open Source Mea Culpa or back pedaling? You decide

Last week I wrote about "Ten electronics things to be thankful for in 2010." If you're reading this now, you probably don't need the link because you probably read that article then too. But that's not really relevant. What is relevant is that in my #6, about open source hardware. I wrote, in part, that in some ways open source seems a bit exploitative of the designers. pt wrote in the comments for the blog article asking if I could give an example of how open source is exploitative.

I got to thinking about my choice of words and came to the conclusion that "exploitive" doesn't quite cover what I was trying to say. Although, in some cases, I think it does. It's possible that there are some aspects of the open source movement that I just don't get. Or it's possible that I have the capacity to pick a black cloud out of anything. If that's the case, I like to think that I can also pick a silver lining out of anything as well. That combination becomes a problem with recursion.

I'm a capitalist so I believe that (a) it's important to have profit as an ultimate goal of any commercial endeavor. I still have a bit of idealism left so I also believe that (b) when making that profit, we should be like the Boy Scouts and leave the planet a little better off than we found it. I get sick to my stomach when I read about executives making massive millions of dollars when their employees struggle to adequately feed and clothe their kids. (Is this post turning into one of those "I believe..." manifestos?) Following up that last point, I believe that (c) if someone does good work, they should get something in return for it. It's a trade. You give me something valuable and I'll give you something valuable in return. Not always money, but something of value.

That's where the mushiness comes in for me. Here's the good side. Ti is a big company that, with the Beagleboard, is giving something of great value to the electronics design community. As far as I know, the people at Ti working on the project are paid. My guess is that the ultimate motivation of Ti is it to help sell chips, but the project has given a whole lot of people access to a level of performance whom would not have had access it otherwise. That endeavor meets my abc conditions. Companies like Adafruit, Sparkfun and DIYdrones have built successful small (and growing) businesses with the help of open source hardware and software. People are making a living (I assume) from those organizations. Both companies give a lot back to the community and both companies make it very clear that they benefit from and really appreciate the efforts of open source designers. They give the folks recognition and support. They and companies like them meet my abc.

The other side of open source, and where I smell the exploitation, is when big companies use open source, make large profits and don't return anything. I mean, sure, the licence allows them to and I suppose that by reducing their costs, they can be more competitive and stay in business, keeping their employees employed. But when a software company buys the remains of another company or two that allegedly "own" some opensource code and then tries to make a business of suing people that use that open source software; I consider that to pretty exploitive of all of the people that voluntarily gave their time to the project.

When a large muti-national company that sells server farms uses an open source OS and doesn't return anything to the designers, I find that also to be exploitive. I don't know what the answer is. I mean it's cool that Linux, for example, is used in so many places. The fact that big corporations put so much weight on it certainly validates the legitimacy of it. But I can't help but envision open source developers out there, that could really use a bit more money in the bank, looking at those big corporations that are profiting off of their backs, feeling a little used.

So, am I missing something? Do I not get it?

By the way, this piece has a lot of personal opinion in it, but I do believe that my company works hard to meets my abc so I don't have a problem posting this on my work blog. The two times in my career that I did work for companies not meeting my abc, both ended badly for me. Fortunately, I believe in this one.

So, help me out here. If I'm not getting a part of this, feel free to chime in.

Duane "Does idealism hold up in the face of reality?" Benson

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Comments

its an old entry, but i read the blog when i can.

open source to me is odd, i preferred it when we just gave away for free that which we wanted too. Now its all licenses and credits and so on.

Why if i give something away do get upset if someone else sells it, and/or doesn't give me any money. I gave it away, thats my expectation. If i wanted to make money with it, i should have thought about that before i did so.

Will someone with the time or effort, or sales distribution to do so turn it around and make money off it, maybe, good luck to them , again i gave it away.

I'm more annoyed by companies that are all open source, freedom etc and all that then get uppity about what happens to it. They're still companies with taxes, payrolls, overheads etc and they can't give away stuff for free or at cost.

Some don't even give away anything more than a PDF of a schematic, which is like printing out source code as png's.

Accept that when you set something free, someone else might do something with it. If you're giving up ownership, then have that mindset.

If someone open sources a design, and another company competes and sells it without kickbacks because the license allows it. Than thats the choice/fault of the person who licensed it in the first place, if you don't want that happening, adjust the license, simple.

Don't go around implying things into licenses.

The whole open source hardware is even more annoying than the open source software movement, since its mostly a group of companies that are selling product to make a living, i don't think they should be the ones at the helm.

With respect to linux, and a lot of projects hosted on SourceForge and the like. I would liken them to to the street performer. He creates something with the hopes that people will like it and tip him. Even if no one tips him or no one likes it, he gets experience in programming or performing, and the satisfaction of helping the community. He can make real money if of somone notices with work and hires him to a company or sign him to a record label. Also, he gets something that solves a problem he has - whether it be not having a certain kind of music, or not having a program that performs a certain function.

Another open source model is like that same street performer selling CDs. He's giving a sample of his work away and interacting with potential customers, but in the end it's an attractive way to get people to buy CDs, or software, whatever he's selling.

The final "opensource" model is purely exploitive. My first exposure was from
"opensource" software a Japanese University is developing with Honda. The source code is available and they ask people to help develop it, but they maintain exlusive control of it for any purpose other than "research" - further developing their code. If you put their code in your commecial product, they can sue you. Even better, Honda didn't have any licence system setup for the code. So you work for free, get no recognition or possibility of getting paid, and can't use your work. In this case, exploitive is a very apt word. Worse, these parasites won't make it clear that the licence is for research purposes only, you have to carefully read the Open Source Agreement. This particular agreement was titled, "Modified GNU License" or something similar. It was certainly modified alright!

As someone making open source HW myself, I kind of have to lean a sympathetic ear to Duane on this one. Adafruit is a great example of how things should be done: with honesty and integrity -- they chip money back to the original developpers or sell original boards even if they don't technically have to. I've stopped buying from a certain other company that waves that OSHW flag pretty high but where the take feels a whole lot bigger than the give just for that reason. I ended up buying a second Bus Pirate from Adafruit, for example, just because I know they sell the original boards and some money goes back to the guys behind it.

Abusive is maybe a bit strong, but it's a word that closely approximates my feelings towards large companies with the financial means to take any design and produce 500 of them without giving much or anything back to the project originators. Some companies profit by following the letter of the law (license), others (Adafruit, EMSL, DIYDrones, etc.) seem to follow the spirit of it. I know where I'd rather see my money going.

Just my own two cents anyway.

Hi again pt;

I guess I was thinking of a couple of open source software examples that get my goat and was lumping HW and SW together. That's not a fair thing to do so I'm sorry that I did that and will do my best to not do that in the future.

As far as what Ti, Adafruit, Sparkfun, DIYdrones and companies like that are doing, I don't have a view into their specific policies, but I really do believe that they do a great service (Arduino too) to the electronics community in specific and to the economy in general. A lot of progress is being made in embedded computing, automation and robotics directly due to those companies.

@duane - your example has nothing to do with OSHW - "large muti-national company that sells server farms uses an open source OS and" - this is not open source hardware, do you have a specific example of open source hardware being exploitative?


@Hmm - adafruit works with all the kit makers and pays royalties. you're welcome to contact any of the designers adafruit works with. you're completely wrong and saying untrue things.

obviously you're a troll since you didn't include who you are.

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