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Open Source Hardware

Ask Slashdot: Should An Open Source Hardware Project Support Clones? 117

Long-time Slashdot reader Ichijo has a question about "(not quite) open source hardware": One hardware project that calls itself "open source" doesn't want to make its hardware design source files publicly available because doing so would, in their words, "make it very trivial for e.g Chinese companies to start producing cheap clones... we'd be getting support requests for hardware we had no idea of the quality of." This answer was in response to a request by a user who wants to use the design in his own projects.

Have any other open source hardware projects run into support issues from people owning cheap "clones"? Have clones been produced even without the hardware design source files?

Leave your answers in the comments. Should an open source hardware project support clones?
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Ask Slashdot: Should An Open Source Hardware Project Support Clones?

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  • Considering you can send chips to China now and they'll offer complete reverse engineering/duplication services. I don't see them keeping the schematic to themselves as being a real solution to stopping the Chinese from knocking off their hardware.
    • by lkcl ( 517947 )

      I don't see them keeping the schematic to themselves as being a real solution

      schematics are not protected by copyright law. as in: they are uncopyrightable, by definition of them being a "functional description". it is a common mistake (even amongst the open hardware community) to assume that schematics may be copyrighted. what *may* be copyrighted is for example an aesthetic layout of a PCB, because that is a creative process.

      • by msauve ( 701917 )
        "schematics are not protected by copyright law."

        Authoritative citation needed.

        Anyone who's dealt with electronics knows the difference between a well drawn schematic and one which isn't. There is significant skill involved in creating good schematics. Else, why are there tools for creating and editing them which let you control the layout? Why not simply enter a netlist and then let some program create the schematic?
        • http://www.tiplj.org/wp-conten... [tiplj.org] Ref section 99.
          • by tlambert ( 566799 ) on Sunday October 02, 2016 @10:01AM (#52998709)

            http://www.tiplj.org/wp-conten... [tiplj.org]
            Ref section 99.

            That's not an authoritative citation.

            It's the opinion of David G. Luettgen in a journal article, which claims computer programs are also not copyrightable. It also claims in its conclusion that electrical circuits are a creative expression, while computer programs are not.

            The guy is kind of talking out his arse.

          • by msauve ( 701917 )
            LOL. No, that's not authoritative, it's just someone's personal opinion which happened to impress you. One can always find a lawyer to argue either side of an issue, that's how the system works. Authoritative would be case law, preferably at the appellate level.
        • "On 30 November 1999, the U.S. District Court in Seattle, Washington, dismissed Mackie claims that Behringer had infringed on Mackie copyrights with its MX 8000 mixer, noting that circuit schematics are not covered by copyright laws."

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org]
          • by Anonymous Coward

            Wikipedia says the thing, but when you follow the cite that claims Seattle, Washington the case turns out to actually be in the UK.

            A different link gives a media article that says the also sued in Seattle, but nothing about the ruling.

            What matters in a ruling is the details. You're not going to find a case where the judge just says, "Golly, you can't copyright them thar circuit diagrams." What you'll actually find is pages of detailed analysis about why they can't make the claim in a particular case. And ob

            • No, you'll find texts arguing the difference between artistic and literary copyright. If you move the parts around on your copy, artistic copyright is no longer applicable. Literary copyright might still be relevant, but only when the design is not obvious (and those would be covered by patents if it really is novel). I found these three cases described in "Contemporary Intellectual Property: Law and Policy":

              https://books.google.fi/books?... [google.fi]

              In practice, this means that if you don't patent something no
          • by msauve ( 701917 )
            No, a link to Wikipedia is not a proper citation. Find the actual case you say supports the claim.
            • In addition to a reply I gave to AC above, this provides some additional reading: https://cases.legal/en/act-uk2... [cases.legal]

              Look, I'm not saying that a circuit diagram has no copyright; the actual diagram and component layout are under copyright. However, a circuit derived from said circuit diagram doesn't necessarily. As I mentioned above, if you take a generic chip and use the reference design to build up a circuit that contains two or three other reference designs and so on (which is what the original board in
              • by msauve ( 701917 )
                No, you can't copyright the circuit itself, but a circuit is not a schematic. A schematic is a graphical representation of a circuit. The OP's claim was "schematics are not protected by copyright law," which is not true. Schematics are copyrighted. Any protection for a circuit would be via patent.
    • Considering you can send chips to China now and they'll offer complete reverse engineering/duplication services. I don't see them keeping the schematic to themselves as being a real solution to stopping the Chinese from knocking off their hardware.

      Actually, publishing the spec or even the HDL code (if it's chip level) or schematics (for board level) is something they should do. The Chinese could take it and copy it, but rarely do we see them actually improving on an implementation.

      But all FOSS licenses have a disclaimer of no liabilities if the software doesn't work. For hardware, that might be trickier, since it is a tangible thing that a person is getting that is made up of actual matter, and is not gonna be given 'gratis'. Still, any licens

  • by iCEBaLM ( 34905 ) <icebalm&icebalm,com> on Sunday October 02, 2016 @03:44AM (#52997673)

    That said, no, open source hardware projects have no obligation to support anybody, let alone clone makers, but it's not open source if the source isn't open. Meaning they shouldn't actively block clone makers.

    • by RDW ( 41497 )

      I wonder if some developers genuinely don't understand what Open Source means, and just use the tag as a convenient buzzphrase? Describing projects that aren't really Open as Open Source is a problem that goes back to the early days, and affects software as well as hardware. e.g. LinuxSampler still defiantly claims to be Open Source a decade or so after after being dropped from major Linux distributions because it clearly isn't (and has a contradictory licence that doesn't make it properly non-free either).

    • by perpenso ( 1613749 ) on Sunday October 02, 2016 @08:15AM (#52998279)

      That said, no, open source hardware projects have no obligation to support anybody, let alone clone makers, but it's not open source if the source isn't open. Meaning they shouldn't actively block clone makers.

      The software side of the project may be open source. The drivers, system software, etc. That would make it fair to describe a project as open source.

      Also to expand on what you said, open source does *not* mean making your source code or hardware design universally available. You are only obligated to provide it to your customers, albeit with no restrictions on redistribution. Therefore it would be entirely consistent with open source to verify someone is a customer before providing any support. Furthermore it is also entirely consistent with open source to charge for any technical assistance beyond providing the source code or hardware design.

      FWIW, the company could charge for technical support of non-cusomters and refer these paying non-customers to their hardware supplier if the hardware is in question. We sort of did that at a company I did technical support for long ago when I was starting out. Not many non-customer paid for support but very few were angry since they understood they had not purchased anything from us. It probably helped that these were more technical folks and not the public at large.

      • by iCEBaLM ( 34905 )

        The software side of the project may be open source. The drivers, system software, etc. That would make it fair to describe a project as open source.

        Sure, the software side, yeah, but this is called the Open Source Scan Converter, not the Open Source Scan Converter Software, or the Open Source Scan Converter Firmware. The question was specifically about hardware projects. If you're billing yourself as an open source hardware project, then you have to make the source hardware designs available or else it's j

    • by jcdr ( 178250 )

      Whenever it's for hardware or for software, the point to make a project open source is to create a community to support and improve the project, not to make money. Starting from that point I found cheap clone a rater big advantage, because this offload the production problem and make the project accessible to more and more peoples with almost no management. Instead of fighting against clones, it better to take advantage of them.

  • by Mageaere ( 726231 ) on Sunday October 02, 2016 @04:00AM (#52997691)
    You can support the design of your open source hardware project. Actively doing this keeps the community cohesive and on point. When it comes to supporting the implementation, If you built it, and you sell it, then you support it. If someone else builds it and sells it then they can support it. If the potential customer buys from someone else and asks for your support because the low cost outfit they bought it from cannot help them, then, charge like wounded bulls, be very suspicious of what your are working with, point out all the problems you so conscientiously find and help out as much as you can. This will offset your costs, make you look good, encourage the customer to buy from you in future and make your low cost competitor look incompetent.
    • by Anonymous Coward

      (sorry for the AC but I used mod-points here)
      Usually I agree. However, if price differences start to become, like, 1/10th of original retail for a clone with exactly-same specifications, components and good looking board, or 1:20 for an obvious knockoff, using cheaper components but still fully functional, the original manufacturer does start to get a problem. With those kind of ratios it's hard to compete, saying you deliver the original.
      It's the difference between 'Let's protect this expensive little piec

      • And this is why we have patents.
        To protect innovators ability to exploit their innovation so that they can be free to innovate some more.
        Unfortunately this mechanism has experienced an enormous amount of abuse, and so we come to the counter mechanism of open source.
        Thus the best solution maybe to use both..
        How you use both is then the question to answer.
        This will depend on the technology involved, what component you can choose to control, what components you can make open source, and also on other
        • And this is why we have patents. To protect innovators ability to exploit their innovation so that they can be free to innovate some more.

          That's one reason. Another reason is so the innovators can recoup the investment they made for their innovation, the R&D. A cloner only has to pay for the marginal cost of production, not the original R&D expenses. Without the ability to recoup R&D expenses it would be nearly impossible to find investors will to fund an endeavor.

  • by Kjella ( 173770 ) on Sunday October 02, 2016 @04:06AM (#52997709) Homepage

    It's not open source if it doesn't come with the complete source that someone else can "compile" into hardware. It's not open source if it comes with a "look but don't touch" license. They're under no obligation to support them. They can trademark their name/logo to protect the brand and their own sales. But they can't stop them. If that doesn't work for them, maybe open source is the wrong business model.

    • What if it comes with a "look but no exact copies license". (where an exact copy is defined as a product that does not have at least 20% more or different parts)?

      What if it comes with a "look but any clones have to be sold for a minimum price" license?

    • It's not open source if it doesn't come with the complete source that someone else can "compile" into hardware. It's not open source if it comes with a "look but don't touch" license.

      Huh?

      I thought that was the distinction between "open source" and "free foo":

      "open source" software MIGHT come with a license that ALSO makes it "free software", but "free software" includes an explicit license to use and modify (with the only restrictions being some variant on requiring derivative works to also be open - which

      • You are wrong. The OSI definition of open source software is basically the same as the free software definition:
        https://opensource.org/osd [opensource.org]

        The license must allow modifications and derived works, and must allow them to be distributed under the same terms as the license of the original software.

        The license must not discriminate against any person or group of persons.

        The license must not restrict anyone from making use of the program in a specific field of endeavor. For example, it may not restrict the program

  • by melting_clock ( 659274 ) on Sunday October 02, 2016 @04:16AM (#52997737)

    I've used hardware from several open source, and not really open source, hardware projects that have attracted a lot of clones. The biggest problem is that the clones are often not exactly the same as the official versions. Clone can have higher version numbers to mislead consumers into believing they are better than others. Even something as simple as different connectors catch people out.

    Over time it can become a confusing mess for everyone involved, making support of every clone impractical. If you want to offer some help to clone buyers, limiting that support to a list of approved clones, that meet minimum requirements, is a way of avoiding insanity.

    • I had exactly this - I built some radio controlled pwm-dimmable led light bricks using an Arduino clone. I wanted a hard reset using the fob - long press would charge a capacitor to pull the reset pin low.

      It worked fine on some, but not on all. As it turned out some of the clones has a different value pull-up resistor that changed the timing - very frustrating.

    • by stooo ( 2202012 ) on Sunday October 02, 2016 @06:58AM (#52998077)

      Usually, when you open the source and want to market it, you trademark the product name, so everybody can copy and clone it ( which is the purpose of open source), but not under the name you control. So they will not be able to taint your reputation.

      Simple as that.

      • That works if you do have the means to defend it. But the means to defend it get pretty thin when you're talking about clones selling on Alibaba. Even if you have legal resources in China, they're going to use your brand. Even those only selling very different competing designs will use your brand.

        • by stooo ( 2202012 )

          you don't really compete with them because you don't sell on alibaba.
          And also, their customers will buy the same cheap stuff, regardless of the brand.

  • Transistor tester (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday October 02, 2016 @04:28AM (#52997757)

    There is a project developed mostly by German classical electronics enthusiasts (they do not use the openHardware et al. buzzwords but in fact software as well as hardware files are freely available) developing a cheap transistor tester (actually does a lot more),

    https://www.mikrocontroller.net/articles/AVR_Transistortester

    There are 100s of different clones of these available in china. Go to e.g., aliexpress and search for "transistor tester". Most of the things that come up there are the mentioned clones. (One example here in case your search gives different results https://www.aliexpress.com/item/Mega328-Transistor-Tester-Diode-Triode-Capacitance-ESR-Meter-MOS-PNP-NPN-M328/32679703774.html ).

    Once people find out the source of this they come to the huge discussion thread of the project and ask for help (why does it not work, software upgrades, ...) for their devices. The main guy is actually helpful towards them. In some cases the Chinese clones have been changed in software or hardware and help is not that easy. Looking at the discussion thread this takes significant resources.

  • by janoc ( 699997 ) on Sunday October 02, 2016 @04:36AM (#52997771)

    First - it is not really an open source project if it doesn't want to publish the design files/documentation. There is nothing wrong with wanting to keep that secret, but then, please, don't use the "open source" moniker.

    Second - yes, the issue with clones is real - just look at Saleae (they produce USB logic analyzer). Their original hardware was widely cloned, because it was basically just a repurposed devboard for a common chip loaded with custom firmware that they made freely downloadable.

    That said, the Saleae case also shows how not publishing the design files is ineffective - Saleae didn't publish anything, but all it took for the device to be cloned was someone buying a genuine one and reverse engineering it. It is not that difficult to do if someone really wants to do it.

    So in the end who gets punished by the files not being available? Certainly not the cloners but more likely your own legitimate customers who will have more tricky time integrating the device into their own projects or repairing it.

    Concerning support of the 3rdparty clones - nobody should be obligated to support unofficial hardware. Just don't be an ass about it, pulling another FTDI (company that tried to sabotage/brick the clones).

    • First - it is not really an open source project if it doesn't want to publish the design files/documentation. There is nothing wrong with wanting to keep that secret, but then, please, don't use the "open source" moniker.

      That's why I believe this question to /. community is not an honest one. It's like the question is asked because the OP doesn't know how to protect his design from being cloned by Chinese manufacturer when he will reach the actual sampling and production milestone in his project. In fact, everyone contracting fabrication of hardware to the Chinese or anyone else (they are not the only one to manufacture and copy hardware) is having this very same problem open or not open.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    1. The community creating an open source design is not obliged to support it. Sure not.
    2. The reason to go open source is actually to let others make it. Not? And Chinese are included in other.
    3. This has worked for a zillion projects. Having cheap Chinese clones is actually a benefit. Universally available (think free shipping) affordable hardware is boosting the project. Yes, there will be support requests. But also there will be talented new members to the project to provide that. Worst case there will b

    • by AHuxley ( 892839 )
      Yes most of that was covered with the US issues around the need to reverse-engineer the IBM BIOS.
      If its open, everyone gets a look and can create, ship, market.
      The only way around that is to ship closed hardware and give each person buying a device a full copy of all useful code and offer support.
      The user buying into the product can then create anything they want, the hardware been a pay for dongle.
      As for the clone production line, the moment its signed over another factory or even the same production
  • Why not have a support demarc/mpoe, where regardless of the hardware involved, you choose to operate under the assumption that the asker is using "offical hardware" and proceed from there?

    Of course, this assumes we're discussing free support. Paid support? No. You want paid support for an open source hardware project, you buy and authenticate yourself correctly ( using "official" hardware ).

  • by thegarbz ( 1787294 ) on Sunday October 02, 2016 @05:27AM (#52997881)

    The Chinese will clone your stuff if there's value in it. Full stop. Being open source just adds potential for the clones to be more likely to work without issue.

    • by Bob_Who ( 926234 ) <Bob AT who DOT net> on Sunday October 02, 2016 @06:21AM (#52998005) Homepage Journal

      I like Clones best when they wear big shoes and juggle. The Chinese are really good jugglers and they need not clone what they already prototype and manufacture for the West. Apple begins with Asia. Cupertino has reverse engineered the weak Chinese currency to benefit their labor costs while price gouging their countrymen and keeping that wealth out of circulation, in reserve for share holders. So they send in Clones and we provide the Comedy and Tragedy of the decline of US prosperity. Now send in the clones, and we'll provide the Clowns.

  • Huh (Score:5, Insightful)

    by buck-yar ( 164658 ) on Sunday October 02, 2016 @06:04AM (#52997955)

    Isn't the whole point of open source to allow anyone to make it themselves?

    I see this debated in the Pixhawk circle quite often. The software developers get all upset that chinese vendors used the schematics to produce their own products (??? isn't this the whole point). The 3DR(American) pixhawk costs 2-3x as much as the Chinese version (many wouldn't even own a Pixhawk if they had to buy it at those inflated prices). While the developers make all these claims about how their product is QA tested, they still have all the problems the chinese ones do (or one could say the chinese version has all the problems inherent in the design).

    For example, the 3DR version had IMU1 problems because the design had the chip too close to the edge of the PCB, and the vibrations from cutting ruined the chip. The American version has that issue, but the newest 2.4.8 chinese version moves that chip inwards. Wait- the chinese improved upon the design, shocking! The american developers that rip into the product non-stop never mention that.

    Or the IMU2 problems with the chip stuck in a brownout state (apparently a very common problem with the LSM303d accelerometer). The original open source design doesn't provide proper discharging of the sensor rail. Chinese fixed that as well

    Clones? That isn't very accurate terminology. More like "forks." The 3DR Pixhawk left many issues unresolved, years after they were discovered. Now 3DR has stopped making the original Pixhawk, so if it wasn't for the Chinese forks, there wouldn't be any more. That doesn't get mentioned as a plus either.

    • Any input on a Mini PX4? I've been putting off finishing a quadcopter based around one of those and a readytofly 4in1 ESC. I've never messed with Pixhawk before specifically because it is so very expensive...

    • by c ( 8461 )

      Clones? That isn't very accurate terminology. More like "forks."

      IMHO, the threshold between "clone" and "fork" is whether the forks are available to the original/main branch.

      A major beef is that these cloners take the designs, but contribute nothing back.

  • Have clones been produced even without the hardware design source files?

    Certainly. Clones can be made at any level of the hardware. The boards can be reverse engineered, entire chips can be cloned at various levels of the design. Portions of a chip that perform a certain feature can be clones, let's say a media decoder or an encryption function. Those blocks of logic are licensed out and pretty expensive, so they have watermarks and fingerprinting codes hidden within their circuits. A company can save mill

  • by drinkypoo ( 153816 ) <martin.espinoza@gmail.com> on Sunday October 02, 2016 @07:44AM (#52998165) Homepage Journal

    Support them? No. You provide a forum and if the community wants to support them then it can. But equally you must not go out of your way to impede them, or you will destroy your community. Arduino would be less than half as popular today without cheap chinese clones.

  • I've got a software+hardware project I'd like to (when it works) release as BSD/GPL/open-source. I'd be flattered if it was popular enough get knock-offs and derivatives. But I don't want to have to deal with my software not quite working right for these third party hardwares. So can I restrict use of my software+firmware+hardware to, "yes, here's all the code and design, open source, but if you change anything don't use my VID+PID, get your own"? Is this still open source, and can I still use the GPL? (BTW

    • by guruevi ( 827432 )

      Your VID/PID can/should be a non transferable part of your system, GPL covers code not design, look into a Creative Commons that fits (e.g. Non commercial use etc) . Clones don't really care about licensing anyway and you can't stop the clones from China in court.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    I'm member of a tiny OSHW team with a well known product and tons of clones on eBay, Banggood, Alibaba and so on. Actually, we're happy to have the inexpensive clones. It's more expensive to make the device yourself (the project was intended as a DIY project for electronics hobbyists). Also we don't have to deal with any manufacturing and certifications (FCC, CE etc.). We don't sell anything, just provide the schematics, firmware source, documentation and some support. So we have more time for improving the

  • If they are an open-source hardware project but haven't released the spec, then THEY'RE NOT OPEN SOURCE.

    If they release the hardware specs but sign their own hardware and don't release the key that's still fine.

    They can then request anyone who wants "support" (the question in this /. posting) to provide authentication of OEM purchase.
    No auth - no support. It could even be automated. Just like Motorola's "Can my device be unlocked?" site, they could have a
    "do I have a Genuine OpenSourceHardwareProject Boar

  • I have used and loved arduino for a while. Without clones, I quite simply could not have afforded to buy them in the quantities that I needed to make them useful. And please don't give me any crap about supporting the originators, if that is something that you want to do, then go right ahead. My choices are not going to be affected by others' whining.

    I find it curious that there aren't any real raspberry pi knockoffs. I really would love me some of those, not out of some dislike of the raspberry people, b
  • Is Linux "supporting" crappy compiled linux kernels or just "enabling" them?

    My experience that there are crappy vendor clones of linux of (i.e. terribly hardware specific, marginally documented, buggy, not maintained), but i have never seen the crap they do being "supported" in the way that it would have made it's way into the mainline (yes, that is what "supporting" means).

  • First, let me try to shed some light on what "hardware project" is, comparing it to a "software project". But before that, let me introduce myself, and introduce what I do in regards to Open Source, and my still active projects.

    I am the author of ZPUino, which is a SoC (System on a Chip) targeted at FPGAs although it can be built on an ASIC. ZPU (Zylin CPU [1], which is the "core" of ZPUino) was not designed by me, in terms of its ISA (Instruction Set Architecture). The ZPU core inside ZPUino is however muc

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