Friday, October 24, 2008

Open source hardware

Wired magazine, in addition to suffering from what can only be described as an obsession with the iPhone, often publishes very thoughtful and thought-provoking pieces about intellectual property trends. Chris Anderson, the editor-in-chief at the magazine, did in fact recently come by the library to give a talk to some staff members, and he spoke about some of his ideas about intellectual property. Considering the editorial big cheese's interests, it wasn't a surprise to me that this month's issue of his magazine features an article about open source hardware, an idea that fits in well with his words about copyright. The article is about a company called Arduino. They make circuit boards. Find the article here.

Open source hardware is a fascinating idea, and one that I think really gets to the heart of what the patent system is all about. While the monopoly that a patent owner is given is often the focal point of the patent process, it's really secondary, at least in the interest of the public, to the development of technology. Giving an inventor control of the market for an invention is merely an incentive, a carrot to encourage technological development. The practice of publishing patents exists as a way of disseminating technological knowledge; people aren't free to manufacture patented products, but they are free to try to improve on the technology. Taking out the monopoly only makes it easier for people to tinker with the invention, and thus makes that invention a greater good to the public.

It's kind of exciting for me to think of an army of volunteer engineers across the world collaborating on a project that anyone can use. Whether the spirit of voluntary innovation that has made Linux and Wikipedia successful can carry over to the manufacture of physical objects like circuit boards, no one can say. If Arduino's business model of giving away the secrets works, however, the impact on the future of commercial technological development could be pretty huge.

During his talk at the library, Anderson argued that it was in his interest as an author to have his words reach as large an audience as possible, and that the best tactic for spreading his writing is to give it away. Using that model, his profit would come from increased recognition, which, in turn, would lead to increased demand for his expertise (most likely speaking engagements in the case of an author).

It looks like the open source hardware folks are using a similar model. As the inventors of their product, any buzz that the product generates will center on them. People will then seek them out for consulting work, or as the authoritative manufacturer of the product. It will be interesting to see how successful this venture is and if that model catches on.

In the mean time, patent application statistics are on the rise, so don't expect the end of patents to come any time soon, though if the Creative Commons process could be applied to hardware, I wonder if we will soon be seeing more "share-alike" licenses for patented technology. Perhaps there's room for that in the 21st Century.

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