The Sincerest Form Of Flattery

In the art world, it’s often wistfully said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. In the open-source hardware world, this flattery takes the shape of finding your open-source project mass produced in China and sold at outrageously low markups. Looking around on my lab, I’ve been the direct beneficiary of this success.

I see an AVR Transistor Tester that I picked up for a few bucks a long time ago. Lacking anything better, it’s my go-to device for measuring inductance and capacitor ESR. For $7, it is worth much more than I paid for it, due to some clever design work by a community of German hackers and the economics of mass production. They’re so cheap that we’ve seen people re-use them just for the displays and with a little modification, turned them into Tetris consoles. That’s too cool.

Microcontroller boards? My go-to is the “Blue-Pill” style STM32F103 breakouts, which cost nearly the same as the processor itself in small quantities. But these are clones of one of the first non-Atmel Arduino-compatible boards: The Maple Mini. Leaf Labs stopped making the boards, but with the designs out there and the price of the middle-aged microcontrollers dropping, it’s a huge win for hackers. I just bought a multi-protocol remote control for RC airplanes. I could have made one myself by sourcing parts and whipping up a PCB, but why? It’s cheaper to buy one pre-built, and I got a nice plastic case for free. My current 3D printers are a ripoff of the Prusa i3 design and a kit-built Prusa Mendel. The former cost less than a fourth as much as the latter, although the results are about the same. Why? Chinese mass manufacturing of open-source designs. I could go on for days.

It’s noteworthy that the folks who did the initial design work for all of this don’t get paid this way, and that bums me out. But of the aforementioned projects, only two were ever manufactured and sold by their originators. I’ve talked with Andrew Meyer of Maple Labs, and he said that he’s happy that they got cloned: the margins on the hardware were nothing compared with their design service income, and the benefit of having a bazillion Maples out there keeps their libmaple library well maintained by the community without requiring more of their resources. I know Joe Prusa isn’t a huge fan of “clone” competition, but he’s continuing to do what got him into the scene anyway — innovating — and that keeps their business running and expanding.

(The Mendel was actually a kit of Joe’s that he helped me assemble at a weekend workshop back in 2011 so I’ve paid him off directly anyway, and I just donated €5 to Pascal’s RC project too. My conscience is clear on these examples.)

Bigger businesses like Sparkfun and Adafruit can afford to be cloned because what they’re really selling is innovation, education, and documentation. Plus customer service and logistics and all the rest of the business of business. And for that, they earn a well-deserved markup. (See Nate Seidle’s great talk on the matter from 2016.) But doing all that “business” is a lot of work, and for a hacker with a few good ideas, getting the idea out there and getting it cloned is probably the easiest path to getting the goods into as many hands as possible, and making the project better.

Would the Transistor Tester ever have sold hundreds of thousands of units if left to the original hackers? I think not. And not every project is a mass-market project either. There are tons of interesting designs being sold in small quantities by the hackers who originated them, and I’m stoked to be able to buy them directly whenever possible. (Insert plug for Tindie, Hackaday’s sister company, here.)

But to those of you out there who have had the honor of being mass-cloned and ending up in my tool drawer, I salute you. And that’s the sincerest form of flattery coming from my hacker heart. I’ll buy you the beverage of your choice when we meet.

15 thoughts on “The Sincerest Form Of Flattery

  1. The original intent for building most of the open-sources gadgetry, wasn’t to start a business, and make huge profits. They were made to fill a personal need, or simply to see if it could be done, with their education, experience, and materials available. More of an adventure, than a business. I don’t think most of those who create, actually want to get saddled with a business venture, they want to create, and continue exploring. Profits, of course would be nice, but in reality, they don’t come free and easy, it’s hard work, and a focus on stuff, less fun than creating a new gadget. Risky too, since success isn’t guaranteed.

  2. It is troubling to me to relate these capabilities/possibilies to money, and market oriented relationship with makers. Sure new thangs are coming cheap from china (which is a problem right ? centralism, exploitation, hard labour…), the troubling thing is that OF COURSE they gonna take open design and manufacture the stuff/clones. That’s what open is all about, and in a very strong stalmann sense “Free not opan”, we did it for free because we had the mean to do it. Once published no one owe antyhting but gratitude to the original designers, and they chosed that way. I don’t now much of them, but no people in my local hackerspace did ever regret doing a design or a song, or repair, and at one point regreting not getting money/reward after their job became a important/big thing. But it is a interesting topic to view how, in my opinion, hackers relies way too much on the capitalism that their freedom of view is constantly fighting. thanks for the read.

    1. Let my shadow do good deeds, so I would know nothing of it.
      -A Buddhist prayer

      Moral of the story being that if you’re going to make any sort of a saint or a hero out of yourself, it defeats the whole point. There is no contradiction between capitalism and “freedom of view”. One is simply the product of the freedom of view of other people.

    2. I agree that it’s a matter of choice. The contributors themselves typically understand this and just want to follow their muse on their own terms, the problem is that the open source movement has also attracted a lot of bad actors who only really care about getting free stuff and this second group loves to play the us vs. them card at every opportunity. Things get ugly in situations where the open source contributors later choose to start getting paid for their work and the open source politicians go bonkers and lash out at everyone and everything. I’ve been deeply involved in commercial grade 3D printing for a number of years so I had a front row seat for one of those self-immolations when the consumer printer thing ran its course in the mid 2010s. It was certainly interesting, and informative.

  3. I think that mass production of open source designs is great, it helps them grown big community and it is better for us – users and hackers then closed or locked commercial products

    1. Frankly? I had a really hard time finding archive artwork for this one. This one, with “here’s my travelling saleswoman kit” were made up for a series that Jenny did, and it’s the closest I could get.

      You win some, you lose some.

  4. > getting the idea out there and getting it cloned is probably the easiest path to getting the goods into as many hands as possible, and making the project better

    I’m not so sure about that, I still didn’t manage to get any of my projects cloned, despite my efforts in that direction. The best I got is one manufacturer that agreed to make and sell my project, but they insist on paying be a percentage…

    I think the problem is that nobody is going to clone your project before it becomes popular — there is too much risk in that. So you still have to take the hard path, and only after your project is successful, it gets cloned.

    1. Certainly some truth to that – but come up with a good idea and tell like-minded folks (like all of us here) about it and we can all end up ordering the same parts and PCB’s etc and it gets popular enough to clone – passively from the designers point of view as all the work is done by (or for) the users who want it

    2. I hear you. That’s actually a very interesting question — what makes the cloners pick up a certain product?

      On one hand, I’m pretty sure that someone out there is just subscribing to Sparkfun and Adafruit’s new-breakout-board RSS feed. But what do you do if you’re a lower profile hacker?

      Certainly, if it’s buildable from cheap parts, and sellable for a markup, that’s huge. The RC plane/quad multiprotocol transmitter, for instance, is a (retail) $7 radio unit + microcontroller, and folks can sell these for $30-40. Add in for nice plastic molded case, antenna, etc, but still you’re talking $20 assembled. That’s tempting enough to manufacture that even some “brand names” do so.

      Great point. Success and cloning are chicken and egg.

    3. How popular was the forementioned AVR Transistor tester before it was cloned?

      My understanding was that not only did the original authors never produce it but it didn’t even have a website or any other organized central repository of it’s design for builders to work from. It was just a long forum thread and a builder had to read through the whole thing picking the various proposed hardware and software modifications that people had suggested over the years to get a version which most matched the user’s intended use.

      Are you telling me that so many people built it that it was it’s popularity that made the Chinese cloners take notice and start producing it? I’m kind of skeptical about that!

  5. FYI.
    Although there are Maple Mini clones, the BluePill board is not a clone of the Maple Mini.
    It just happens to share a similar form factor and a MCU from the same STM32 series

    The BluePill has a completely different pinout to the Maple Min, and it lacks the USB reset hardware that is present on the MapleMini.
    The BluePill boards use the cheaper STM32F103C8 MCU which in theory only has 64K Flash ROM, whereas the Maple Mini has the SM32F103CB which has 128k.
    Luckily because STM get such good yields in their manufacturing process, almost all the chips sold as the 64k version are actually the 128k version. Hence the BluePills normally have 128k

    Its possible that the BluePill actually pre-dates the Maple Mini, but you’d need to ask the original LeafLabs designers about that.

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