Over the last 15+ years, innovative electronics companies have designed and released thousands of open-source hardware designs, creating a flourishing industry. Open-source hardware companies collectively created, and signed the open-source hardware definition which means products meet a uniform and well-defined standard for open-source software and hardware.
However, recently some open-source hardware companies have either gone closed-source on products, are in process of going closed-source, are delaying the release of files/source code, or require NDAs to obtain the software for an advertised-as open-source hardware & OSHWA certified product. Many of the formerly open-source hardware and software based companies were built on open-source, what will this mean for the users, and open-source community going forward?
Why write about this? This article intends to highlight some examples of what’s happening now as part of the years I’ve spent covering open-source and open-source hardware. Things are changing, that’s for sure. For almost two decades, starting at MAKE Magazine, including when I founded Hack a Day (2004), then working full-time at Adafruit, I’ve covered the start of open-source hardware and all its ups and downs. From the open-source hardware definition, the logo disputes, Arduino’s former CEO ousting, and MakerBot going closed-source – I’m stuck with this beat, and this beat is stuck with me.
Since I have covered this beat for so long, companies and individuals ask for assistance on a regular basis when something is damaging the community, false open-source claims, straight-up code credit removal / attribution, or when switcheroo behavior comes up. The current challenge for helping out is that many of the companies or people who are bending or breaking the rules have specifically described Limor, myself, and Adafruit as a competitor. The strategy is to assist folks with open-source software and hardware disputes privately, contacting the parties and see if there is an agreeable resolution. The goal is to avoid a Twitter fight and pile-on where it gets personal and brings out the worst in everyone. So far, communicating directly and privately has worked out – there has been a “ruffling of feathers” when it’s a self-described “competitor,” but other open-source hardware companies are not competitors. The best way to describe it is: we are at a skate park, doing tricks, pushing what’s possible, and trying to learn and share from each other for the next trick – building upon each other to go to new heights. Sometimes the next big trick doesn’t land unless you can learn from someone else.
With all that being said, I’m going to continue to matter-of-fact catalog some of the changes in what is happening at open-source hardware companies, which I write here on the Adafruit blog and talk about on our community video shows in our open-source and manufacturing segments (ASK AN ENGINEER every Wednesday at 8pm ET). This is a bit “notes to self” to look back and refer to later –
Arduino Pro hardware is not open-source hardware, and the Arduino about page(s) were recently changed in regards to the open-source hardware and software.
The previous Arduino open-source statement arduino.cc/en/Guide/Introduction :
“Arduino was born at the Ivrea Interaction Design Institute as an easy tool for fast prototyping, aimed at students without a background in electronics and programming. As soon as it reached a wider community, the Arduino board started changing to adapt to new needs and challenges, differentiating its offer from simple 8-bit boards to products for loT applications, wearable, 3D printing, and embedded environments.
All Arduino boards are completely open-source, empowering users to build them independently and eventually adapt them to their particular needs. The software, too, is open-source, and it is growing through the contributions of users worldwide.”
Recently changed to:
“Arduino was born at the Ivrea Interaction Design Institute as an easy tool for fast prototyping, aimed at students without a background in electronics and programming. As soon as it reached a wider community, the Arduino board started changing to adapt to new needs and challenges, differentiating its offer from simple 8-bit boards to products for IoT applications, wearable, 3D printing, and embedded environments.”
The section “All Arduino boards are completely open-source, empowering users to build them independently and eventually adapt them to their particular needs. The software, too, is open-source, and it is growing through the contributions of users worldwide” was removed.
This change to the text happened after I asked to find out more from Arduino (could be coincidental?) since it was a big departure for the open-source-ness of Arduino, and was also curious since the Adafruit team and the open-source sponsorships are some of the largest contributor of open-source libraries for Arduino. Are the open-source libraries going to be used for something closed-source? Which ones, and what libraries are most popular? That would be good to know, Adafruit was promised a list of Adafruit libraries ranked by downloads/popularity, some transparency would be helpful as parts of Arduino move away from open-source.
Last year (2022) Arduino took in a Series B funding round of $32 million. That’s a lot and I’m surprised it did not make the electronic news-circles. While funding makes the news for the latest hot-thing like AI companies, hardware companies not-so-much. The $32m for Arduino is one of the largest chunks of funding for what is probably the most well-known open-source hardware company. A previous large round of funding was for for littleBits, formerly an open-source hardware company. One of things I’ve seen over the years in this is space is when a company takes tens-of-millions of funding “the investors” or the new metrics seem to pressure the founders, and the company to move away from open-source. Often there is a shift from providing as much value to the users as to the businesses, and there is a move to closed-source from open-source.
Arduino helped create, and signed off on the open-source hardware definition, Arduino has an enormous influence on what is considered open-source hardware. I’ve contacted Arduino on behalf of some of the lead developers of Arduino hardware and open-source libraries and asked if they would consider Open-source certifying any any of the Arduino boards (non-“Pro” boards), Arduino declined.
To give Arduino credit, the latest Arduino R4 series does seem to be open-source hardware – with PCB CAD files for the UNO R4 Minima available at docs.arduino.cc/hardware/uno-r4-minima and WiFi docs.arduino.cc/hardware/uno-r4-wifi under a CC BY-SA license. There’s even a commitment from Arduino to upstreaming changes made to TinyUSB back, Adafruit is largest sponsor of the open-source TinyUSB project which is used in the latest Arduino(s).
Besides Arduino, SparkFun is probably one of the most well-known open-source hardware companies. It appears that a recent product sold as open-source has closed-source firmware and an NDA is required to see it. After the product was launched there were questions about its open-source status, (this is one I was asked to look into) and it appears it was recently addressed on GitHub.
“We are keeping the DataLogger firmware closed-source as it contains SparkFun Intellectual Property and is the result of hundreds of hours of work. We may be able to release it to you, but it would be under a Non-Disclosure Agreement.”
SparkFun’s CTO informed me the Open-source certification and open-source hardware logo on the product for sale was in error and being corrected. Unknown if there is any GPL software in the closed-source binary, an NDA would be needed to review. I did ask if there was any open-source software in the closed-source binary but did not get a reply. A user would need to sign a NDA to know more about the software for the SparkFun DataLogger IoT – 9DoF.
Update: July 13, 9:09am ET – Revoking Certification for US002346 – July 13, 2023 “(SparkFun) asked that the certification be reversed due to accidental filing.”
Prusa is the most well-known open-source 3D printer company, and I’ve attempted to get more information since it looks like they are going closed-source (there are open-source logos on their boards currently being sold, the product pages advertise the product as open-source). Months ago Prusa posted an article about wanting to discuss what’s going on, and very high-profile open-source software and hardware leaders have attempted to have those discussions with them, but so far, there have not been any updates and the marketed-as-open-source Prusa products are still missing the published files/source of what would allow them to be called open-source.
And Prusa MINI launched in 2019, but sources for the bootloader have not been released, and it’s OSHWA certified, which means hardware and software under open-source licenses.
The Prusa article which started much of uncertainty was supposed to be “a call for discussion” and specifically:
“…due to the current state of the electronic components market and also the issues outlined above, we will not rush to release the electronics plans just yet. We would like to release them already under the new license.”
Good overviews and questions about Prusa going closed-source are best outlined here:
- A reply to Josef Průša – Stargirl Flowers on March 30, 2023.
- A(nother) Reply to Josef Průša – Michael Weinberg on April 05, 2023.
Update 7/14/23 12:51pm ET: More on the Shifting State of Open Source Hardware by Michael Weinberg July 14, 2023.
From what I can determine, Prusa wants a new non-open-source license to stop clones, much like the MakerBot story. I do not believe “clones” are the issue, and what rights, exactly, would this new non-open-source license be licensing for the hardware? I think the tension in the 3D printing community over Prusa is because of the lack of updates since the declaration of changes ahead.
“Reminder for me not to be hvpocrite after starting my own RepRap company. Reminder what got me where I am today!”– Josef Prusa, September 2012.
If Prusa really does go closed-source, that will sting a bit, the founder has an Open-Source Hardware tattoo, it was impressive enough to have that level of commitment, wrote about it over 10 years ago right here on the Adafruit blog! RepRap is the open-source hardware / software Prusa is based on, and without it being open-source Prusa’s printers would not exist.
Prusa has one of the best pages on open-source hardware, how they got there because of open-source and why it’s important.
I reached out to Prusa multiple times and was told they could get back to me in August / September. However hours (July 12, 2023 at 6:32) before hitting publish on this Josef Prusa sent in some (new) information! It’s a the end of this article in full.
The beginning of the end? Or the end of the beginning?
Since this is meant to be a post that will be updated, stop back and look for any new text with a time/date stamp indicated. I’ve reached out, again, to some of the companies involved and, ideally, will get a clarifying statement on what is open and what’s not, and some context of why the (new) fork in the road. Most, if not all, of these companies are built on open-source software and hardware, they got this far, and some are eroding what “open-source” means.
The Open-Source software and hardware community, the users & contributors, are not going enjoy signing NDAs, or give up tons of personal information for a webinar, or jump through a million hoops to get access to things they want to build and share, they’re going to move on to something else. These are platforms, and the users can and will move to other platforms.
If customers are purchasing hardware that claims to be open-source, including using the term “open-source”, and there is an open-source logo on the physical board – but it turns out that’s not open-source, should the customer get a refund if they wish to return it for that reason?
Some of this reminded me of a passage in one of Cory Doctorow’s articles on how platforms die, it’s more about online platforms, but perhaps it’s a cautionary tale for open-source hardware companies too –
“Here is how platforms die: First, they are good to their users; then they abuse their users to make things better for their business customers; finally, they abuse those business customers to claw back all the value for themselves. Then, they die.”
Since I’m part of Adafruit now, what is Adafruit going to do? Closed-source ahead? I’ve asked Limor again and again who is the founder and lead engineer, if she plans to change anything she does if more Open-source hardware companies go closed-source, or will she spend time on “new” way to do open-source that really isn’t open-source, and her response is the same as the one she gave TechCrunch back in 2012 “Can Open Source Hardware Companies Survive Clones?”
Adafruit founder Limor Fried doesn’t find much value in arguing about who is right in the clone wars. “Oh really? There’s debate about open source hardware? I’m going to keep shipping open source hardware while you all argue about it,” she said.
So, it’s still safe to assume Adafruit will stick doing open-source hardware and software putting the users first and holding tight to the open-source values that built all this and got us here.
Comments, corrections? Email [email protected]
Comment from Josef Prusa, founder – Prusa
We haven’t finished our homework for the follow-up article yet and there is still a lot to unpack as we go deeper on what is happening in China. We uncovered multiple programs aiming to support 3D printer companies with the goal of dominating the market. Subsidies, tax breaks, “protection for market leaders” (whatever that means) and even direct government funding. The main companies now have hundreds of patents yearly, many based on open-source community inventions. Each holds international priority. The language barrier and the sheer spam volume make it impossible for the community to police this. Just translating one of them costs several thousand dollars. We are sifting through the majority of it and trying to get some examples translated to inform the community about this issue in the next article.
You mentioned Makerbot closing down because of the clones: if I remember correctly it was based on a Kickstarter campaign which was pulled because of community, but Bre Pettis was already going for a sale. Nowadays, unfortunately, most people don’t care about the big picture. Bambu, Creality, Anker, and Anycubic all violate our or others’ licenses with zero real impact on them. By the way, Chinese manufacturers are chipping away on this rock normalizing the misuse of the open-source community for years, and I am a bit sad to see nothing from OSHWA on this topic. Maybe it good time to do independent research on the state of 3D printing current state by OSHWA now – it is undertaking soo huge, the community or one single company can’t do it on its own.
I still don’t want to close-source everything, I do not plan to sell the company as many suggested in the community and my dream is to pass it over to my kids one day. But we will need to adjust the game a little bit. As we can see, having just the community watching over the state of the industry will not be good enough in the future. There is a very strong core, but it is becoming a minority just by the sheer number of new people joining the ranks, who do not know the history and origins of RepRap and modern 3D printers. We will need to protect some of our IPs and that can’t be done with current licenses.
The Chinese plan is kinda working, which is sad, we are the last man standing in the West who tries to make affordable printers at any meaningful scale.
I want people to be able to modify, hack and repair our machines as they are used to BUT I don’t want to hand everything on a silver platter to state-supported enterprises which simply cheat and exploit the system of open source community. Surely there must be a clean solution.
I would like to get the follow-up article out in the next two months.
Adafruit -What rights, exactly, would the new license you proposed in the original article be licensing?
There is a basic proposal in the original article. A proposal, I do think still stands and gives quite a clear idea of what we aim for. We did not draft a full version yet and we have a lot of input from other companies we need to go through.
Adafruit – Is there a specific Chinese company that has been awarded a patent based on open-source hardware or software? If so which company, for what, and have they enforced it?
That is a question for the follow-up article.
Adafruit – Have _any_ Chinese companies sued Prusa for patent violations based on a patent they received based on open-source software or hardware?
We do not sell and do not plan to sell our products in China. In general, those patents which are granted with little to no scrutiny, however, hold international priority (they can file for the next 12 months anywhere in the world) and can very easily close entire avenues of development. The patent boom is also rather fresh and the danger of litigation is not imminent. The timeframe we have to think about is not 12 months but rather 5 years or even a full decade. And you definitely don’t want to wake up one day and realize everything is walled off – then it is too late to do anything.
Adafruit – Are you going to get the OSHW tattoo removed?
Tattoos are not laptop stickers, they are forever. They also come with stories. If it would ever come to that we would have to close source everything, delete all the stuff we published or any other doomsday scenario, it would be another chapter in that tattoo story. When someone asks about the tattoo, they get to hear the whole story.
ChatGPT use disclosure! The title of this article was going to be “Open-source hardware ain’t what it used to be” – After completing the article, I fed the text of the article to ChatGPT to come up with some titles for it, after some back-and-forths went with “When Open Becomes Opaque: The Changing Face of Open-Source Hardware Companies” … a close second was “Shifting Sands: The Changing Landscape of Open-Source Hardware Companies.”