The Sincerest Form Of Flattery: Cloning Open-Source Hardware

We’re great proponents (and beneficiaries) of open-source hardware here at Hackaday. It’s impossible to overstate the impact that the free sharing of ideas has had on the hacker hardware scene. Plus, if you folks didn’t write up the cool projects that you’re making, we wouldn’t have nearly as much to write about.

We also love doing it ourselves. Whether this means actually etching the PCB or just designing it ourselves and sending it off to the fab, we’re not the types to pick up our electronics at the Buy More (except when we’re planning to tear them apart). And when we don’t DIY, we like our electrons artisanal because we like to support the little guy or girl out there doing cool design work.

So it’s with a moderately heavy heart that we’ll admit that when it comes to pre-built microcontroller and sensor boards, I buy a lot of cheap clones. Some of this is price sensitivity, to be sure. If I’m making many different one-off goofy projects, it just doesn’t make sense to pay the original-manufacturer premium over and over again for each one. A $2 microcontroller board just begs to be permanently incorporated into give-away projects in a way that a $20 board doesn’t. But I’m also positively impressed by some of the innovation coming out of some of the clone firms, to the point that I’m not sure that the “clone” moniker is fair any more.

This article is an attempt to come to grips with innovation, open source hardware, and the clones. I’m going to look at these issues from three different perspectives: the firm producing the hardware, the hacker hobbyist purchasing the hardware, and the innovative hobbyist who just wants to get a cool project out to as many people as possible. They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but can cloning go too far? To some extent, it depends on where you’re sitting.

The Open-Source Innovators vs The Clones

Let’s start off by looking at the clones from the perspective of the firm whose work is getting cloned. These are the firms that put their open-source designs out there to help their customers better understand the product, and the thanks they get is another company producing the same thing and selling it for less. Naturally, you’d expect the manufacturer’s perspective to be pretty bleak, but at least in a limited sample of some successful (!) firms, it’s not so bad.

Sparkfun

[Nathan Seidle]sparkfun_logo, the founder of Sparkfun, gave this great talk on his perspective on open source hardware, and he spends a lot of time talking particularly about the clones. He starts off with the seemingly fatalistic observation that if you’re making anything interesting in his market, it’ll be cloned within twelve weeks, while patenting something can take years and costs time and money to enforce. In this climate, you might as well open-source because it helps your customers, and you’re going to get cloned anyway.

Rather than take this as a negative, [Nathan] claims that this competitive pressure from the clones pushes them to always come up with something new and focus on providing other, non-clonable services to their customers, like education. He brings up Kodak as a counterexample — their hefty portfolio of patents and tendency to sue rather than innovate led them to stagnate and eventually go bankrupt. The short version of [Nathan]’s view is that the clones force Sparkfun to stay focused, evolving, and competitive. Being fat and lazy on top of a mountain of patents may be good for the short run, but he thinks it’s bad for the firm in the long run.

Adafruit

adafruit_logo[Limor Fried], the “Lady Ada” of Adafruit, also gave a talk on why her company open-sources everything. For [Limor], open-sourcing is a moral value; it’s good to share. Rather than focus on the competition that comes from the clones, [Limor] says that the fear of being copied is much worse than the reality. They just don’t harm her business as much as she’d feared. Instead, she focuses on the societal and other benefits of developing in the open that outweigh the cost.

What little attention [Limor] pays to the clones, she seems to think that they’re probably useful. She talks about how an old project of hers got cloned — the x0xb0x — a clone (oh the irony!) of the Roland TB-303 bassline machine. Her points about the x0xb0x project are again mostly moral: it’s good to share, and if you open the project up, it will outlive your commitment to it. Indeed, she made a bit of money on the project, but essentially lost interest. It would be a tremendous shame if you couldn’t make authentic mid-90s acid basslines, and the world is clearly a better place because she opened up the design and there are a handful of clone firms doing the production work for her even today.

Arduino

Arduino_logo_pantoneFinally, no review of open-source hardware would be complete without mentioning Arduino. With the possible exception of the Arduino Yun, the Arduino boards have been open hardware from the beginning. And they’ve also been cloned from the beginning. In 2013, after some lawsuits against Kickstarter projects that were probably infringing on the Arduino trademark, [Massimo Banzi] felt he had to clear the air on the clones.

[Massimo]’s blog post basically called out the counterfeit Arduinos, but also touched briefly on the legitimate clones. [Massimo] says that of course making Arduino clones is ok, but he also asks that if you’re making a clone board that you at least make it different in some dimension other than simply price.

Overview

In summary, here are the cartoon-sketches of three important players’ thoughts on getting cloned, and they’re all different.

Clones: What are they Good For?

If business owners have a mixture of fear and loathing toward the cloners, they’re surely a bad thing, right? No way! Clones bring two important economic elements to the manufacture of electronic modules: competition and economies of scale. For the consumers of electronic doodads, cloners provide both a cheaper alternative right now, and exert downward pressure on the prices of other firms in the industry. Don’t apologize for buying clones, revel in them!

Monopoly, Competition, and Social Welfare

Economists have this funny idea of perfect competition. In their models, there’s an infinity of potential firms competing to sell you exactly the same item. Because the only way the firms can distinguish themselves is on price, they each lower their prices until they can just barely cover the cost of producing the item, plus “normal economic profits”. Sounds a lot like cloned open-source projects, doesn’t it?

Competition is in stark contrast to monopoly, where only one firm sells a particular good and market demand is the only factor that constrains their pricing. These polar extremes are idealized cases that fit nicely into theoretical models; real-world examples are nearly always somewhere in between.

Monopoly-surpluses
Image: SilverStar via Wikipedia

A whole bunch of economic theorems show that perfect competition is the socially optimal arrangement — that the maximum number of people get to buy their stuff at the cheapest possible price. Monopolies, however, end up making firms rich at the expense of the consumer, because instead of charging what the item costs, they can charge as much as you’re willing to pay. Worse, in comparison to the competitive case, there is a deadweight loss that represents the people who would have bought the goods at the lower, competitive price but who don’t at the higher price.

This is the obvious cost of monopoly, that folks who would otherwise buy stuff don’t or can’t. But there are other societal costs of monopolies. If it’s a legally-enforced monopoly (as with patents), the company that has a monopoly on production of an item may not be the most efficient producer, raising the price to the consumer even higher. This is why some patented products never make it to market: the firm that owns the patent is a high-cost producer, but then they ask too much to license the technology to a lower-cost producer, so they can’t profitably make it either.

Needless to say, the competitive “normal economic profits” are not what a CEO wants to promise to a firm’s shareholders. So firms do anything they can to gain a competitive advantage, and this often boils down to creating a monopoly on their particular product through patents, branding, maintaining trade secrets, or even shadier tactics.

Open sourcing a project invites competition and essentially rules out monopoly. The clone firms are just playing their obvious role. And the winner is us, the consumers, who get the goods on the cheap. It’s good to push a single producer on their pricing when it looks like they’re behaving as a monopolist. Maybe they’ll lower their prices and share a bit more of the profits with us in response.

Economies of Scale

In electronics, it’s no secret that the more you make of a given widget the lower the average cost of production. Say it costs $50,000 dollars to set up a chip fabrication run, but then each chip produced only costs one penny. If you make one chip, it’s kinda expensive. But if you can amortize that fixed-cost over millions of chips, your average cost gets pretty close to the one-cent mark.

Add scale economies to competition and you see why an Arduino Uno costs $25 and a cloned Pro Mini costs $2. (OK, they’re not exactly the same thing, but you get the idea.)

Using the Clones: The AVR Transistor Tester

So if clones are tough on the producers, and awesome for the consumers, how do they play out for the innovative hacker who just wants to get a cool project into as many hands as possible? They can work fantastically. We’re often surprised when we see open-source hobby projects get cloned, only to have the original designer bitterly claim that they’re being robbed. It seems a bit “sour-grapes” to us. After all, they open-sourced the project.

[Limor Fried] would say that you should be honored that out of all the projects in the world, the cloners picked yours. But besides the feeling of pride, disseminating your projects through clone companies makes economic sense because they’ve got scale economies that you probably just don’t have. The AVR transistor tester project is a perfect example.

The AVR transistor tester started as a microcontroller project that determined the pinout and tested a BJT transistor automatically. The original design (in German) had a clause that limited the firmware to non-commercial use. A few people on the German microcontroller forum built them, but it didn’t really go much further.

triac[Karl-Heinz Kübbeler] took this as a starting point, and broadened the utility of both the hardware and the software (also German, but with English-language PDFs and a splinter discussion on EEVblog). From a transistor tester, the project became a general-purpose component tester that is a veritable swiss-army knife of an electronic device. While limited in accuracy relative to dedicated (and expensive) pieces of test equipment, this thing gets a lot done on its small LCD screen. Transistors, diodes, capacitors, inductors, and resistors are all characterized. Recent modifications include the addition of frequency and PWM generators, and basically anything else that folks can tack on without running the processor out of program memory.

[Karl-Heinz] kept his project open, responding to questions and feature requests on the forum. Because it was so cool it eventually got cloned, and the cloners would stop by the forum asking for help with firmware development. The result is a few cloning companies competing to sell you his transistor tester. You can buy a handful of subtly different versions of his device for $15-20 US shipped. This is just about what it would cost to source the full BOM for the project, even assuming that you produce the PCB “for free” at home.

You’re totally welcome to make your own transistor tester. It’s open source! It might make sense if you’re interested in hacking some more on it. But if you’re just interested in using one, you’d be stupid to DIY. You’re just throwing money away. Competition among the cloners plus their economies of scale make it so. At the same time, open-source hardware and the clones have made [Karl-Heinz]’s great project available and affordable to hackers everywhere.

Doubts?

I’ve made the case for clones, from the perspectives of innovative firms, consumers, and hobby project designers. What’s wrong with these arguments? Why the hate for the “cheap clones”?

Note that the firms I cited were all successful firms. A company that was bankrupted by the clones wouldn’t feel so blasé about the whole affair as [Limor] or [Nathan] do. And if one of these companies that got pushed out of business was poised to do some really neat innovation, we might miss out on that as a society. So it’s good to make sure that our innovators are sufficiently rewarded, but we don’t want them getting fat and lazy either. It can be a fine line.

And with all the clone companies out there, it’s hard to tell the scammers who sell you fake parts from the legitimate cloners who are doing their best. No matter how good you think competition is for a market, too many different firms can cause confusion. Maybe some of the hate comes from confusion of the cloners with the scammers and fakes?

But I fear that some of the backlash against the clones comes from consumers who falsely imagine themselves to be in the shoes of the producers. I like hacker-friendly companies as much as anyone, but when they charge a dollar more for something that I buy, it’s an extra dollar out of my pocket and into theirs. It’s a zero-sum game, and if more competition keeps them honest, I’m all for the competition.

Because on the price-per-pound metric, it’s hard to beat the clones. Because of clones, I got to buy a cool AVR transistor tester for peanuts. At the end of the day, I know that I’ve made projects that I wouldn’t have if the parts cost more. And that makes my hacker heart happy. Your thoughts?

79 thoughts on “The Sincerest Form Of Flattery: Cloning Open-Source Hardware

  1. I do have a question. I’m developing a product in which I believe, and the moment to decide if it should be open source or not is coming. I’d like to make some money out of it, to help paying my bills and give me more time for development. If I make it open source and people like it, is it still possible to make some money, or all the profit will go to cloning industries?

    1. Basically the cloners will wait to see if there is a market, so you can make it open source, and get *some* return for your time. The more general purpose your project, the more likely it will be cloned. I see a crapton of breadboard accessory clones, not so many eeg clones :)

      1. This also has a really nasty feedback loop:

        US companies, in order to not get ‘shown up’ by the cloners*, will institute crippling anti-features that link their hardware to “the cloud” as a form of ball and chain. Phillips Hue, as well as Google/Alphabet’s intentional failing of their IoT project are perfect examples how these ecosystems are the companies’ and theirs alone. You’re nothing but a renter in those goods, and there is no tenant agreement.

        But to the companies’ side, these “cloud services” are means to keep the cloners from taking a lion’s share of the profits.

        *Whom are now Chinese; they used to be the Japanese in the 60’s to 80’s, and will likely migrate to India in coming years

    2. There’s a principle in open source hardware that needs to be brought up. I’m not sure what the correct term is, but it’s like this: I built a CNC machine without any plans. The machine is not patented, not copyrighted, I’m not afraid to show it to anyone, I don’t care if anyone copies it, etc etc. But is it truly open source if I don’t publish the information? What if I can’t afford the expense of producing and publishing the “source code” for the hardware aspects of it? Or what if I’m simply to busy using the machine and everyday work, and too lazy otherwise to write a web site on it? What is this called? I believe it has been demonstrated over and over that there is indeed a way to produce and profit from an idea that is perfectly open source (or will be, sometime in the future) before actually going to the effort to share.

      That being said, I also point out the part about the *effort* it takes to open source something. People are quite greedy and demanding. I think big bang theory has really caused bad thought patterns. People assume that information just exists by default, it’s just there and we should be able to download it, and what’s the big deal. I.e. “isn’t there an app for that”. Perhaps there should be another license called the Open-to-Reverse-Engineer license for hardware inventions that don’t have source code, but should.

      1. May be the CNC project uses one of a kind parts or materials/tools that are not readily available? Still better than youtube only demos that doesn’t show any technical details.

        What if the project is open source, but the code quality is so poorly documented or structured that it cannot be maintained? What if the project is well documented, but the skill level is so high that few can actually replicate? e.g. surface mounted and BGA parts on HDI PCB

        The goal isn’t necessarily to let everyone on the internet to copy/paste the same stuff you have. If it inspired someone to look outside the box, it has done something.

      2. “What if I can’t afford the expense of producing and publishing the “source code” for the hardware aspects of it?”

        Are you talking about a monetary expense? There are plenty of places you can post that stuff for free. Time and effort, yah, that makes sense. Money? nope.

      3. Expense of publishing the source code? Ever heard of pastebin? I don’t know the maximum size allowed, but if you have text you want to share, just copy and paste to pastebin for free. If you don’t need or want to edit or delete, you can post it anonymously. Just keep the link to the paste and send it to those who want the information.

        1. Ever try running jsfiddle or pastebin on a hardware design that exists only in your head, or in photographs? These replies are my case in point. Monetary expense?? Time is money, unless you have neither job nor taxes nor house payment. There are costs associated with free stuff! Nothing is free. I gather “free” firewood, but it isn’t free. You won’t get my point until a full comprehension of this is reached.

    3. Another thing about this — it’s perfectly feasible to develop a hardware product, release all blueprints and specs along with the GPL, but don’t blabber out to the world your manufacturing process. Even if you do, it may take too much investment for your competitor to tool up. If someone thinks they can tool up and compete, let them to that challenge. I believe the auto industry could completely open source their entire gamut of products and processes, and still be in business. It could even help them to do so. Are they afraid of upstarts? Are they afraid of established competitors? (I can’t imagine that, they’re all doing pretty much the same things anyways). IMO there’s more about honesty and integrity than secrets, that make a company successful.

    4. Can you patent it if not you have no protection with hardware. If you make a board and fill it with parts and it becomes popular then someone will build a clone.
      This is not new. Many companies in eastern europe made clones of the PDP-8 and PDP-11. Anyone could make a clone of the IBM PC the only thing that slowed them down was the BIOS.
      It is the software that offers the protection from cloning.

    1. One of the things that I think might be good to add is to talk about VALVe and their policy towards pirates.

      For them, they see the pirates as free publicity and don’t worry too much about the game sales they loose; they’re very relaxed about it. That being the case, they actually have the inverse problem of about 40% of the games people buy never getting played. (I can attest to this, given the large number of games in my library I haven’t played yet, as well as the games on my wishlist I’ll never play)

      Why is this? Well, this is partly conjecture, but I think they’re right when they say that they offer a better service than the pirates. They have the steam platform (yes it’s DRM, but it’s DRM I find to be WELL worth it), with the convenience of a library, chat, the steam overlay in games, and a ton of other stuff provided along with it. They generate a strong connection with their user-base too (look no further than reddit.com/r/Gaben), and there’s really nowhere else I’d go to buy this stuff.

      And I think that’s the difference. If you’re a cloner, unless you really care about your customers, you aren’t going to bother with support, or help, or any of the really cool stuff. Every little bit you can do as a manufacturer builds credibility. Online component’s aren’t even necessarily a bad, as long as they bring value to the customer. I think that’s why Arduino is so protective of it’s brand. They’ve build good will among the people (especially in providing the Arduino reference, plus a ton of other stuff), and it’s all attached to that brand name. People will buy more expensive Arduino (branded) boards just because they *are* Arduino. That’s probably the reason for the degree of hostility around the Arduino trademark.

      A cloner will just turn out the product at the lowest possible price, and that’s all they’ll give, because their entire goal is only to keep costs a low as possible. Your challenge as a firm producing a product which has all of it’s design materials online, is to make it worth it to the customer to chose and support you. That could be through online support, like an in-browser development environment, or it could be through providing a support forum/reference. (examples that gather brand loyalty)

      If you want to make actual money instead of offering free stuff in hopes that you’ll win people over, you can offer other services that cloner’s wouldn’t even think of, like printrbot’s 70$ printer repair spa, or by selling upgrades often which the cloners don’t have time to replicate (like some of printrbot’s past upgrades for both new features and obsolete machines). The sky is the limit, and the name of the game is creativity and thinking outside the box. Even onlines stuff isn’t totally out of the question. It can be entirely voluntary, so long as it brings something new to the table. (yeah, you COULD write a bunch of stuff for your home server that hooks up to our unit’s API, but do you really want to when you could just connect to our inexpensive service that does it all for you, and better?) Just because the cloners cover the core sell-thing-to-person, doesn’t mean they cover everything in running a company.

      Yes, they VALVe is a software company, and it doesn’t really cost them anything to send you another copy of the bits and bytes, but a lot the same rules apply.

      1. Well, you could always hire a branch of the Triads to “enforce” any contracts. Because, you know, kneecaps are randomly broken and fires happen inexplicably in factories….

        Better yet, it’s probably a good idea to ignore counterfeiters until they show up in country. Or be faster than them.

    1. You (or your lawyer) could probably write your own license which stipulates non-commercial use and then charge royalties on commercial licenses. With that said, if the schematics and code are freely available then you’re basically depending on the Chinese fabs to respect an honor system. Plus there’s basically no recourse unless you’re ready to challenge them in the Chinese courts (unlikely).

    2. No, you’re not going to get 10 cents or even a fraction of a penny from sales of clones!

      But if you host a forum where you answer questions, or if you reply to emails or (crazy as this sounds) maintain a landline phone associated with your operation, you *will* get the extra cost of supporting customers who purchased the cheap clones. And don’t think for one second those customers who knowingly bought cheap clones will honestly inform you they aren’t using the genuine product you’re trying to sell. Usually they won’t even bother trying to contact the Chinese seller. They know you’re the place to go get real help.

      If you’re lucky, the clones will largely work and mostly be purchased for fairly self-sufficient customers. In less lucky scenario, the clones may look something like the recent Arduino clones using CH340 USB serial chips which have numerous driver issues and compatibility problems. Just visit Arduino’s forums or Github repository to see lots of unresolved driver issues and strange problems, mostly unanswered, but in many cases where time and effort of the developers or volunteers was spent, eventually (usually after many messages) the custom eventually admits they’re using a cheap clone with a different driver.

      1. if it is truly caveat emptor with clone products. I recently wanted to buy a AVR component tester but couldn’t find one at the project website to buy. There are quite a few clones of this project but some of them have made changes that may adversely effect function (zenior diode vs voltage reference) but makes the product cheaper to manufacture. The problem with clones is you just can’t tell what you will get, ,junk or value, when you buy it.
        On the other hand I’ve paid a lot of money for a 3d printer from the creator that relied on the forum for it’s support and cut so many corners that the printer is almost useless.

        1. I think that’s more an issue with mainstream maker stuff like 3D printers, and wouldn’t expect it so much from the non-cloner of an AVR tester. Also, I’d personally avoid clones for stuff like an AVR tester simply because it’s a piece of test equipment and clones typically are build to only-kinda-sorta-mostly-work to keep costs down. You might be able to upgrade the clone, but you’ve gotta weight the time and struggle against the extra cost of just buying the fully fledged version.

      2. That’s a good angle that I didn’t cover! Thanks Paul.

        Actually, I didn’t really get into support at all — though I guess Nathan and Limor kinda did. Education and support are their big non-clonable features, and that’s what makes paying a premium for a Teensy or an Arduino or whatever worth the money. Support and software libs.

        It’s sad to think of end-users lying to you to get support. It’s like the trademark violation case, except with the consumer doing the “counterfeiting”. Booo!

  2. I really don’t get why people release things under open but only for non-commercial use licenses. It’s basically the worst of both worlds. If you want to get your project out there so that others can use it and enhance the maker ‘hobby’ for all of us then just let the ‘cloners’ mass produce the things already! People who were going to build it themselves and maybe even contribute back to the design will still do so. Other users.. well.. maybe they will contribute to something else USING that wonderful tool that you made available. Or… If you want to make money and can’t compete against the cloners then you had better not open source it at all. China is going to build your widgets if you give them the plans!

    All I see these non-com licenses doing is making things harder for others because now if you want to make something that is truly open (or truly closed) you have to also make sure it is sufficiently different from this pre-existing ‘worst of both worlds’ item that are already plastered all over the internet.

    Also, what is and is not commercial? What happens when I buy 10 copies of the PCB because well.. that’s how board houses work. Can I populate the extras and sell them on Ebay just to recoup a bit of my investment? If I don’t have a use for them should they really go to the landfill? What if I just want to sell a few small scale as a way to support my hobby? Is that somehow different from making a living off of it?

    Personally if I wanted to do the most good I would release under the GPL or a GPL like license. Use it for whatever you want but if you make it better then don’t be a dick. You should contribute too! If I wanted the most recognition I would go for BSD. Spread it out there, tell the world what I did but don’t forget to tell them who did it! If I just want money then hands off! No source for you! I understand all three of those motivations. What purpose does an open non-commercial license serve except to protect one’s fragile ego when they feel an imaginary pain from somebody making a little money off of something that they already gave away for free?

    1. “Worst of both worlds” is right! It forces the hobbyist into a choice between paying too much (time/money) to DIY and compromising their morals by buying from an outright counterfeiter.

      And 90% of the time (totally made up statistic!) the license owner never even gets around to selling the widgets, or they half-ass it and are always stocked-out, so you can’t even give them money. Sigh.

      I understand the sentiment — wanting to keep things small-scale and informal — but that unfortunately also means shutting folks out of scale economies, which sucks.

    2. I guess it depends what your goals are. If you just want to see something that was initially made by you (but never actually properly credited) become popular around the world, then sure. But if you want your fellow hackers a similar thing, possibly improving the design and really learning along the way, then it seems that an open but non-commercial license is the right way to go about.
      Also, remember that you can *always* re-release under a different license, or license to individuals, if you like. The fact that something is released to the general public under a no-commercial-use license doesn’t mean that you can’t license it for commercial use to a manufacturer that contacts you about it.
      Once you give the permission, though, it’s gone. You cannot close it back up anymore.

  3. Thing is, most aren’t clones, they are better or different. 3.3v. Smaller. More pins broken out. Other value added. The model-T was any color as long as it was black. GM had any color.

    1. +1 to that. I have a couple of extremely cheap (I think sub $5) uno clones straight from shenzen. It has holes in the pcb for soldering in your own standard headers plus some additional ones, plus it has a dedicated USB-to-serial chip, like the FTDI, instead of the extra Atmel chip pretending to be a serial chip — it NEVER drops the USB, unlike my genuine made in Italy Uno. (Sparkfun’s redboard uno boasts this feature as well.) I will buy more of these, they really do have a better feature set that I’m looking for, than the higher-priced name-branded uno.

      Does this make Arduino mad? Does it rob them of their profits? Maybe so, but it should make them honest. IMHO, that’s what keeps innovation moving. Making everyone wait until Joe Inventor has reaped his retirement, so that others can continue innovating seems like a broken system. The folks at Arduino actually agree, I believe. They open sourced their design, and took the risk of someone one-upping them. They’re a hero for it.

      1. Word! I wrote up a section about these, but it was left on the cutting-room floor, b/c the article was long enough!

        I buy a bunch of (dirt cheap!) Arduino Pro Mini clones because I like the AVR chip. These particular ones added an 6-pin ISP header to the design, which is awesome for me, b/c I don’t use them as Arduinos anyway, and like to program them that way. The “clones” are actually a (slight) improvement for my use.

        There are so many “Maple Mini” clones (essentially breakout boards for the STM32F103 chips) out there that you can find one with _exactly_ the feature set that you want. Don’t need USB and want to save $0.50? Require a push-switch for the USB power? Have a particular favorite pinout or memory configuration? It’s out there.

        That’s also certainly the case with the mutations of the AVR Transistor Tester circuit. Soooo many flavors available.

        1. What about fancy breakout boards loaded with extras for the *F3* Discovery board? I snagged one of those for free when they were first released. All the action seems to be for the *F4* Discovery.

          Then there’s the XMos STARTkit board. Easily powerful enough to run a CNC machine but as yet there’s nothing like RAMPS or any stepper motor control addon for it. Yup, I got one of those for free.

  4. The standard of articles on this site has been at rock bottom since the site takeover . Wonder if someone else could take it over again and build it back to the top site it was.

  5. The way I see it, if you release a product as open source, you should assume that it will be cloned if successful and plan accordingly. If your goal isn’t to really make money on a device, but that you simply want this thing to be on the market for others, no problem.

    If your goal is to make money, what you would need is a plan to have some sort of competitive advantage over the clones. This can be constant updating – by the time a clone of version 1.1 comes out, you’ve already brought out 2.0 or cashed in this one and moved on. Other possible advantages can be support or marketing, or just counting on having enough people wanting to support the original developer to buy from you.

    If you’re in business to make money, you need to plan for competition. And if you release a product in open source, you should assume the competition will pop up sooner than if you released something proprietary (although if your proprietary product is easily copied and can’t be patented, you should assume the same thing). If you’re planning on being in the business of selling open source products, you need a suitable open source business model.

  6. I have an open-source product (ChronoDot) which has been cloned en masse. Not really a big deal, since it’s essentially a breakout board for an RTC chip. However, I haven’t really seen a mass exodus to the clone products even though they’re far cheaper than even the production costs of the ChronoDot. Perhaps people are buying a lot more of the clones…but it doesn’t mean they’re buying a lot less of the ChronoDot. We spend a lot of time tracking down chip sources, battery holder quality, etc and it’s pretty evident the cloners don’t care about that…just look at the datecodes in their product images. You’ll see DS3231 chips that have datecodes for 2007…almost certainly used chips from recycled products, and crystal aging does affect the accuracy of these…that’s what happens if you’re paying 20 cents for a chip that Maxim sells for $3 at quantity.

    But I think most people in this type of market recognize these tradeoffs. You can get some cheap stuff from China knowing it’s probably not the best quality, but could be useful for quick projects here and there. When you’re building something that matters, you’re more likely to get something that looks less like it fell off the back of a truck.

    1. Good point! I didn’t get into quality b/c it hasn’t been such an issue for me.

      Which is to say: I got shipped a bunch of microcontrollers with non-working flash memory in one order, and a broken LCD screen another time, and a non-functioning IMU once, and … But I’ve always managed to get a replacement shipped off. Yeah, it’s a wait and it sucks, but you’re already playing the waiting game with a lot of the clones, so it’s kinda already budgeted in.

      It’s kinda like buying a Dell computer in the 90’s when they had a 10% return rate. You knew what you were getting into when you ordered one. If you wanted to pay for a company that tests them before they go out the door, you would have.

    2. In other words they’re doing what Clive Sinclair did with some of his early electronics products, bought tons of reject parts then re-binned them for the less stringent requirements he designed for. What Clive tossed really was junk.

    3. Surprising as it might be for some, but there might also be some people around that care for environmental and ethical issues, like having the desired product NOT produced by child-slave labor or by destroying the nature and support local economy. the other deserve the bad quality. So I still hope it might be possible to run your business in the magnitute, which could be sustained by having only the customers, who care (and can afford t, I know) about the above mentioned things. These sort of customers will not leave you for the cheapest price possible, but stay if they are convinced, it’s the lowest price you can do. meaning you won’t earn yourself a Porsche by that sort of busines, of course, neither get ritch,, but perhaps a lot happier.

  7. Whilst we are on the subject why do companies make breakoutboards with a basically just a chip on them, may or maynot write/borrow some test software which may or maynot work(often deliberately) claim that this is some great inovation. Convient yes inovation not really. Often if ther’s any inovation in these products it’s come from 3rd parties so when the cloners arrive you cant expect them to find it very difficult to rip their own.

    1. Breakout boards can be quite useful when all you want is to wire something together as quickly as possible to test it and you the the 0.1″ pin strip as a common interface between all the parts. But calling such breakout boards (of which the Arduino hardware is basically one, make no mistake) a “product” is thoroughly ludicrous indeed. The Sahara is full of such “products” – replacement parts for hourglasses for a low, low price of €20 + VAT each…

  8. Let’s not get drunk with cold water.

    It might make sense to release *small* open source projects, but if you are a multinational that put thousands or millions of man-hour in R&D for a big/complex project, you simply can not afford to giveaway all that work.

    1. Depends, if the project is useful on it’s own, but the company needs it as a piece of bigger project, it might not matter if they open sourced that piece. Atleast then they would have a “second” source for that piece, so it could make sense. But yeah, reality.

      1. Not only that… but Microsoft has some really neat ideas. They brought out Azure Stack a few months ago. Basically, people in management (at my institution) were getting antsy about “cloud cloud cloud”. Turns out, this is a lot of places that are hesitant about shifting their enterprise to someone else’s servers.

        Azure Stack is for a small cluster, that replicates what Azure can do, locally. As in, it makes the “Cloud” a set of machines on your rack!

        The only other place I know something like this exists is in Open Source land, where there is no lock-in like we see with proprietary vendors. I’m currently experimenting with Apache Mesos, and in making VMs with WINE and windows executables to simulate Citrix. But it surprises me the more that the download, install, and usage is free for the time. Standard fucking-crazy convoluted licensing of course applies… but this is MS.

        Link, cause it is interesting, business and technologically : https://azure.microsoft.com/en-us/overview/azure-stack/

    2. “but if you are a multinational that put thousands or millions of man-hour in R&D for a big/complex project, you simply can not afford to giveaway all that work.”

      I bet a dollar than an iPhone is fully reverse-engineered within a week of its release. Their secret sauce is in their production chain and marketing, not their IP. They give away the design when they sell the first phone.

      Ford could open-source it’s cars and nothing would change. Boeing could open-source its airplanes. I don’t think it’s a scale thing. Indeed, Boeing is argued to be a “natural monopoly” by virtue of the incredible startup costs of building commercial aircraft. You’re not going to start building competitive Dreamliner clones any time soon, even with their blueprints or software or whatever it is these days. But if you think Airbus doesn’t know exactly what Boeing is up to…

      If anyone is prone to being copied, it’s the small-scale firms with low fixed costs. Sparkfun and Adafruit are particularly brave in this respect, especially since their stuff is available on eBay in a couple months.

      1. I would humble also submit: anyone that doesn’t win the HaD prize to be compensate for their effort. 1st place gets the worm!

        but 5th-20th? Well… Someone somewhere else can get the cheese. Let alone credit for the project. Maybe you might be able to get into a HW incubator with that on the resume.

        post-it notes and band-aids? post-it notes and band-aids friends? Even the CD rom. Who? Exactly.

  9. I take issue with the idea that “clones force Sparkfun to stay focused, evolving, and competitive” given the large price premium that still exists between official Sparkfun products and cloned boards, particularly their Arduino products. $29.95 plus shipping vs $3 or $4 delivered at the extreme end.

    1. I looked for that exact comparison — the Sparkfun Arduino Pro Mini is $10, vs $2-3 for a clone. And they arguably use better parts. You can see one more tantalum power-smoothing cap on the Sparkfun version, for instance. And if you’re in the US, they’ll get it there faster. And they provide support, tutorials, and documentation of all kinds.

      So yeah. You’re dropping some money, but you get something for it. It’s to the point where I’d pick one up if I already had an order with them, but would definitely go the cheapo route if I were ordering 10.

      But really, those are legacy products. Their time scale for innovation vs cloning is in months. They compete by design and offering the new-new.

      1. I certainly place value on the “other” things that Sparkfun provides. But a $20+ per device premium in some cases is a bit unreasonable for truly commodity items such as an Uno. That is my only real criticism here. Not that I am surprised by a premium but that the premium is so much.

        1. Indeed. Brand name (by virtue of whatever quality one expects to be associated with it) does have some value compared to a no-name clone, but nowhere enough to double the price of a product, let alone multiply it. At $2-3, that leaves very little extra margin I’m prepared to pay over the cheapest version I can find indeed – certainly not an extra $10-20, no matter what else they might allegedly offer to justify it.

  10. From what I understand of copyright issues, if it isn’t patented or trademarked, and it is not “art” then you hold no copyright to the design. I could design a PCB that serves some functional purpose, and release it under a non-commercial license. That license would only apply to any non-functional aspects of the design, and to the files itself (it’s a dark gray area).
    A copyright only applies if a copyright is applicable to the works, and all open source licenses use copyright to limit or enhance the usage.
    see http://www.oshwa.org/faq/ paragraph 11 for the issue of functionality and design files.

    in the hardware world, reverse engineering is a perfectly legal way to create a copy of a design. Utilizing patented or trademarked parts of the design, including artistic elements is not legal.

    Other gray areas: utilizing the design files to design your own. while the files might be copyrighted, the functional designs within are not. A direct copy of the files might violate, but a derivative work might not.

    If you put thousands or millions into the development and prototyping of your design, and it doesn’t contain any patents or trademarks, then that design can be cloned within the law.

  11. Bad example… as Arduino is not a physical chip, but intangible software from other parent projects identified with a trademark.
    Cloners exploit peoples’ irrational desire for lower prices, reduced market risk (due to the original authors hard work), and a support community of customers sharing a standardized platform (due to the original authors reputation). The fact the FTDI cloners always put the logo on the chip makes the article’s argument sound like an irrational pitch for communism. Now I don’t believe in punishing customers, but unauthorised cloners plagiarising the original author are simply opportunistic sociopaths in denial of their crimes. Note, money is not a justification for suspending the ethics of supporting other developers like you.

    We can easily spend >$100k developing something by building a dozen versions that are suboptimal for various reasons… like passing standards testing. You can certainly expect a legal battle if you stick our company name on literally repackaged garbage from the failed QA chip reject bin (even chip houses do this on occasion). Note, I’ll simply laugh at you if dare e-mail me complaining about the guy in India/China who sold you something I give away under an Open Licence.

    Often, bums are poor because they don’t respect themselves, other people’s work, or fiscal integrity in general. We would be delighted if the bottom-feeders could make a faster+cheaper+better version of a somewhat similar device, but don’t expect us to donate our resources for tech-support…

    Most importantly, the article’s “everyone should be a desperate bum too” clown argument is the funniest rhetoric I’ve heard in years — “get bent” — I utterly refuse to underpay my staff so you can enjoy a $0.99 cheeseburger.
    :P

  12. Why don’t you want them to get fat and lazy? Don’t you aspire to being able to be fat and lazy, someday (otherwise known as “retirement”)? Is everyone in the world supposed to aspire to working hard their entire life and only getting what everyone else thinks is reasonable for their reward? There is this meme that, in the U.S.A. the lower class thinks of themselves as “temporarily impoverished millionaires.” The meme is generally intended to be taken sarcastically as if to say, ‘look how stupid the lower class is for supporting the greedy upper class.” Contrarily, maintaining the idea that you are protecting your aspirations is a positive thing, I think, otherwise motivation is destroyed for many (most?) people.

    As it is now, the market and the legal system sorts out the tension between open and closed source technology and I’m not sure we can do better. As they say, democracy and capitalism are the worst forms of governance, except for all the others.

    1. Although I accept some of your argument, I disagree with your last statement.

      Outside America, the rest of the world knows that socialism also has a place, and even in the USA the slight majority of young people acknowledge socialist policies as being preferrable.

      America is the ultimate luck experiment. Where the rest of the developed world ran into WW1&2 soon after the industrial revolution, America was protected by its distance and enriched by other’s misfortunes.

      Don’t worry if you don’t accept my argument; but feel free to observe the US spending on military vs healthcare or NASA.
      NASA; <1%
      Military (inc. non DOD) 28–38% of budgeted expenditures
      Healthcare
      Healthcare 17.4% GDP in 2011

      Ultimately, every OECD country apart from Mexico, Turkey and the USA has achieved universal coverage, all have spent less money doing so. United States had the highest or near-highest prevalence of obesity, car accidents, infant mortality, heart and lung disease, sexually transmitted infections, adolescent pregnancies, injuries, and homicides

      Although a significant amount of this comes from non-healthcare costs (Gun Culture increases lethality of Assaults, Road safety rules contribute to Road deaths, etc.)

      I'm not dismissing the world stability gained by having its largest economy focussed on its own "me, myself and I" attitude (At least as an English-speaking White person; the other 90% of it may disagree); Since the annexation of the west, a lack of imperial ambition and predilection to pompous naval-gazing and domestic consumption has protected the sovereignty of most of the White world.

      However we continue to have to comply with US-centricy in legislation and foreign policy, not to mention paying for much of its monopolies, without representation.

      /rant over

      1. All that you have said I hold to be true, but look at the ultimate irony. USA is in deep debt, and when the financial bubble bursts, the entire world is going down for the ride, since the US dollar is still used for the international transactions and currency reserves. So either Americans are very smart, or all of us others are very stupid.

        1. Ahh, but it’s turtles all the way down, because although the US is deeply in debt, as the dominant economy it drives world fiscal policy such that it will never need to pay off it’s debt.

          Instead, inflation is used to devalue prior debt, and incentivise further borrowing, particularly for physical, in demand goods (such as property, businesses, and the like)

          But don’t be fooled; the US is at about 100% debt:GDP with interest payments of 0%. In contrast, when I “bought” a modest two bedroom flat, I borrowed about 600% of my annual income at 12% interest.

        1. Probably.

          Apart from using and abusing Wikipedia; I did use and abuse the switch from government expenditure to GDP. Because the US has relatively low levels of Taxation, GDP military spending is less

          Nonetheless, using world bank data (which uses SPIRI and NATO) http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/MS.MIL.XPND.ZS/countries
          USA spent ~28% of government 2010-2013 (2014 is inclomplete but about 16%)
          When phrased as GDP, that equates to 3.5-4.5%.

          In terms of healthcare I’m mostly going on WHO stats, but below is also from the world bank. The problem with the US is efficiency and coverage; given every other first-world player bar Turkey and Mexico has near-universal healthcare, and generally does worse on most health outcomes (USA does bottom 5 in most categories of the G20 for health, despite the highest GDP spending at 17%)
          A great example is infant death rate, which is strongly healthcare driven.
          In the US, the rate is 6 per 1000 live births. 17% GDP. $9k per capita.
          In Sweden it’s 2 per 1000 live births, 12% GDP. $7k per capita.
          In Australia it’s 3 per 1000 live births, 9% GDP, $6k per capita.

  13. There’s another distinction to be made within the world of clones, and I think you’re kind of skimming past it in order to get a smooth path between anything good about cloning and buying the cheapest Chinese knockoff you can find on eBay.

    On one side, we have ‘virtuous clones’ that take an existing project and build on it. The people who make the clone have a mental investment in the project and they add value through continued support and development. The clone is a launchpad for something more. That’s the kind of cloning everyone who does Open Hardware wants to encourage.

    On the other side, we have ‘lazy clones’ made by opportunists out for a quick buck. You can find them wherever a product is actually supported, asking where they can find the latest Gerbers and BOM. If they do get their hands on board files it’s even odds that they won’t remove the original developer’s name and contact information from the silk layers. They don’t evolve a design, they don’t support what they sell, and a certain number of them don’t even care if the thing they sell works.

    Nobody wants to point to that as a triumph of Open Hardware. It’s more like an inevitable side effect of the system that makes the good clones possible.

    If that was all there was to it, we could just shrug and get on with making things.

    Lazy clones do produce a toxic byproduct though: greedy free riders.

    Your economic argument about competition forcing a socially optimal valuation misses another major fact of economics: product categories aren’t homogenous blobs with a single ideal price. All cars are not the same price. All prepared foods are not the same price. All computers are not the same price. Vendors within a product category differentiate with details like build quality, support, etc.

    Lots of people accept that, and if they buy a lazy clone they do it on the assumption that they’re on their own in the event of technical problems. If they want to do something that isn’t supported by the existing Open ecosystem of the original product, they realize that it’s up to them to fill the gap.

    There’s another breed of clone buyers though: the ones who feel entitled to new-BMW amenities at used-Yugo prices. Just like the makers of the clones they buy, they don’t want to do the work for themselves. They don’t want to read code or datasheets. They don’t want to debug code, and they certainly don’t want to spend the time and effort to learn and understand the technonogy they’re using. They want someone else to create 90% of their project and wrap it up in a way that makes it easy to flip a few switches to get the end result they wanted.

    To that category of people, ‘Open’ doesn’t mean ‘free of encumbrances that would keep me from studying and modifying code or hardware that already exists’, and it certainly doesn’t mean ‘I can contribute value back to the original project’. It means ‘give me stuff for free’.

    In sufficient concentration, you can find them as a prominent cause for original creators abandoning their projects. When you hear someone say, “I just got sick of dealing with all the demands,” you’ve identified the moment when a successful project started its slide into becoming obsolete, and eventually forgotten. The lazy cloners certainly won’t keep the project going. Once it stops being easy money they’ll abandon it and move on to the next thing catching public attention.

    So lazy cloning does have a negative effect on the Maker community. It attracts an audience that steals creator time and attention that could be used writing new code or building new hardware. It makes building an interested and supportive community around a project harder, and it encouages people to walk away from such a community when it gets overrun by people who just want free stuff.

    The problem has existed since the early days of Open Source Software, and the solution has been known for just about as long: compare what people get from a project to what they give back. Don’t tolerate looters, and remember that the correct answer to “why isn’t somebody doing this?” is “why aren’t you doing it yourself?”

    1. I find it particularly fascinating to “notice” the companies that seem to “get” that adding value to a clone is … valuable.
      Seeed, Itead, Baite, whoever designed the first CH340 arduino, etc.

    2. Bollox. Opening you design means exactly that: everyone has the right to make that precise exact specific unaltered product and have the heinous audacity to charge less for it than you if they can. But if you find that idea disturbing, you’re welcome to stay out of it – I’m sure we’ll do perfectly fine without your precioussssss…

  14. The thing I’d like to see made is a board that plugs into the headers for a Pololu stepper driver, with nothing on it except for a sturdy screw terminal block to enable solidly connecting external drivers to a RAMPS or other boards that use Pololu and compatible drivers.

    I’ve seen quick and dirty hacks of this with perfboard and header pins, but no homebrews with a terminal block, none commercially made either.

    So deadly dull simple some Chinese outfit could gin up a run of many thousands, sell them in lots of five for $2 and make a good profit.

  15. I have a project that came out of a hobby. The project is now a hobby in its own right and has become a lot larger than I anticipated, although it has a very very limited audience. I made all the files available and maintain a website just for it. Never though about trying to charge for them.

    Everything is hand soldered and if somebody were to clone it and put it in a nice box I would buy one.

  16. Its all fair and good until you realize that you are fucked because the clones have a price advantage because they produce in another country with lower regulations. This would all be fair game if everyone would compete on the same level.

  17. I buy the cheapest clones available, because pay in my country is ridiculous and enough only for scrap and clone kits. But i prefer to solder, assemble and get the thing to work myself, in form of a kit. No fighting with PCB manufacturers, endless queues and “part not available” in part stores and no hoarding and sorting of mountains of scrap parts just to get few components with strange value. Just buy a clone kit, solved.

    1. Start a hack space with others to poll resources,
      People may mail you free sweepings from an assembly line we don’t have time to recover.
      ;-)
      Note, a shipping container of our computer e-waste usually goes for about $1500 overseas….
      But you will need to cover shipping… and its heavy…

      A heat gun with a pair of pliers… is how I started reverse engineering as a kid.
      The path to a career in engineering is well worn… ;-)

  18. Just to add to the confusion. Who supports this stuff? And the resource sink involved.

    A small USB to Serial board I purchased had some problems. I called up Adafruit to tell them about the manufacturing issues I’d spotted. It turns out they didn’t actually *make* the board.

    Some aftermarket hacker, downloaded the artwork, sent off to have the PCBs made in China, and was hand soldering them himself.

    The board artwork contained the Adafruit logo. So the hacker makes a bit of coin on the side, but his shoddy work resulted in Adafruit answering the phone about defective non-Adafruit copies.

  19. Cloning of open source hardware and software per se is not a problem, as you rightly point out. But if a cloner, like I’ve seen on the Transistor Tester forum, asks questions and gets answers from the developer, the firmware is being debugged and enhanced by the cloner. But he keeps his enhanced version secret until today. And this is not fair usage of open source material. If you get something for free, you should always give something in return. So cloning is OK, but you have to play by the rules.

    1. Ah, yes. One of the things that separates the good cloners from the the bad cloners is whether the cloned design is properly open-source in its turn. Try to find schematics or CAD files for one of those CH340g-based Arduino Nano clones, for instance. :-(

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