Deciding whether or not, or how much, to open source a hardware project

This got a little longer than I intended. Tl;dr How do you decide whether or not to open source a project?

A little background:
In Oct of 2020 I, like many people, found myself out of work. I took the opportunity to start a company and spent the next year working on my first product. It was a wireless keyboard, but that’s not hugely important for this discussion.

I spent about 5000 hours in the first year developing this product. By the end I had something I was really proud of, but the upfront capital required for the first production run (needed at least 250 units to get the price down to a realistic level) and the realities of running a company and doing everything that wasn’t engineering steered me back towards getting a ‘normal’ job again.

Fast forward through a 3-4 month hiatus. I’m back in the workforce, and the feeling of NEEDING to sell a product for income has waned. So I decide to create a simplified version of my product that uses off the shelf parts and give it away for people to build themselves. In my mind, this was to be ‘open source hardware’, but more in that later. I put the 3d printed parts up for sale in my store for anybody that didn’t have a printer to make their own, but the STL files and supporting documentation are all free for anybody.

That felt like a good direction to go, right until I made a few posts on various internet forums to tell people about this new thing I made. The internet was quick to point out that just sharing STL files didn’t meet the requirements of ‘open source’. After I tamped out my knee jerk reaction to what felt like ‘gimmie more’, I did a little reading it seems that their interpretation is correct.

So now I’ve been having more trouble than I expected deciding what to do. Giving out STL files so that people can make my part for themselves was one thing, but releasing the full models that I put so much of myself into isn’t as easy of a decision. It’s not so much the time that I put into it; people much smarter than me put thousands of hours of their time into open source projects all the time. I think it’s a feeling that I’d be giving up ‘ownership’ of what I worked so hard on.

The draw of an open source project, in my mind, has been the ability for others contribute and the end result is everyone ends up with an end product that is greater than any of you could do on your own. It’s just not immediately obvious to me how the ‘sum of the parts’ mindset applies to a hardware project that is, for all practical purposes, finished. But then again, what if something ‘better’ can grow from it that I don’t expect?

The part that is weighing on me is that I WANT to be able to just give away my work for people to use, and by all appearances I’m in a position where that is something I can do. I just feel like I’d be betraying my own perception of the value of my time. At the same time, releasing what I’ve done up to now (in a perfect world) would certainly be something with a different kind of value in itself.

I know I’m not the first person to get hung up on something like this. Any similar insights/experiences y’all could share?

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Unfortunately nowadays you pretty much have to license everything, be it closed or open source. If you already handed out files, anyone could claim it as their own. I’d imagine there is also a difference between a patent for an idea and copyright on design files. You could keep things closed source and share the files. This allows others to make one-off items for personal use while giving you the legal right to reproduce an item for sale.

But then that comes to what needs to be protected and what is being sold. If the design files are closed source you could sell that to another company to produce. Getting a patent is a completely different animal. Unless someone genuinely designs some physical item that is really novel, the patent office should not be granting a patent. I’ve seen lots of woodworkers come up with new chair designs, convinced they have the next “million dollar invention” to find out their patent was made by someone else first, or it’s so old and common as to not be patentable. This is usually when they copyright every picture ever taken of their chair so others can’t “steal” it. There are also companies with enough money to get patents they shouldn’t be allowed to acquire and go harassing people over it. Everything in the patent world is a giant expensive mess.

Without any info, my gut instinct tells me you have a collection of small ideas applied in a very specific way, and the value is in the design files. Closed source copyright with openly shared files would retain your ownership for commercial purposes while allowing personal use for others. I really don’t know how it would go from there if someone comes up with a modification or improvement. I highly doubt their small change would be novel enough for a patent, and they wouldn’t be able to add their stuff to your work for redistribution. Perhaps a deal could be made where you would share some percentage of profits should you make a commercial product, or they could open source their idea and you could add it to your design with appropriate attribution.

I have a very poor outlook towards patents. There are people out in the world “inventing” things every single day to overcome problems. As a mechanic, I have no idea how many custom tools, brackets, and other parts I’ve made to get a car going again, sometimes better than it came from the factory. I genuinely don’t believe a single one of my creations was novel enough to warrant a patent, nor are most of the other things being created every day. The absurd number of inventions that popped out of the industrial revolution makes me quite confident most physical shapes and simple machines (or giant complex machines made entirely of numerous simple machines) have already been invented and the patent long expired.

You mentioned you simplified it before releasing the files, is there a genuinely novel aspect that you withheld, or something besides a shape (like electronics and/or programming) that was held back? You might want to look in to protecting that part and open sourcing the rest. It’s really hard to say anything definitive without knowing exact details, and I’d imagine patent search places aren’t cheap. I’ve heard it is extremely time consuming to do it on your own.

Even if I wanted to patent something, it is insanely expensive and time consuming to the point that I would be better off continuing my day job and satisfied that I was able to help someone. At least I know my day job and the consistency, whereas chasing down the rabbit hole on a patent could suck more money than I’ll ever have, thinking I’m right around the corner from a million dollar idea. It would have to be a ten million dollar idea that I’m certain is novel enough to patent and pursue.

Even then I wouldn’t do it, I’d probably give it away and become a minor YouTube celebrity to get people to donate money towards my future efforts. We’re fortunate to live in a time where people can share ideas and have strangers throw money at them for being awesome. I’ve recently watched Twitch streams of people doing exactly this with custom keyboards and 3D printers.

I also generally value my time at $0 outside of my day job, so my take on things may be completely invalid.


CC: @mike_banon as this is your wheel house

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You and I are of the same mind when it comes to patents. The relevant patents for what I’ve made have indeed been filed and expired. Even if my work was novel enough to warrant one, I can’t afford the lawyers to enforce it. Also, I’ve been involved in generating technical patents before and would rather eat both of my shoes.

I have a similar view on licenses in general; I can say whatever I want about how it can be used, but at the end of the day unless I’m willing to take somebody to court they don’t seem to do a whole lot. Signs only keep out honest people and all that.

You’re correct that the value of what I’ve made is in the design files themselves and not in a wholly new idea. Most of the early stages was looking at existing designs and identifying areas that could be improved in how they did it rather than start from scratch. More of a collection of manufacturability and ease of assembly improvements, any of which can be understood by a reasonably technical person by looking at them. At the end of the day, if somebody copied my design and sold it I wouldn’t really attempt to stop them. I just don’t necessarily want to hand it to them. Maybe I’m trying to balance that against my desire to give my work to people who would enjoy.

What was simplified out of the released version was all of the electronics (and associated internal geometry), which is again just a careful implementation with an eye for manufacturability and assembly. Your suggestion here is a good one, it’s what I’ve been leaning towards myself.

By the way, If you did have any interest in seeing what I’m talking about:


I’m not easily impressed, but that’s super impressive! I really think some sort of video documentation would bring value to you, and if you are at all interested in live streaming, there are definitely people interested in niches like custom keyboards that would support your efforts if you have enough free time to get in to that. You could always check out what others are up to and see if it’s worth your time.

After my leg heals up I’m going to have to slow down a bit, and I’m seriously considering streaming in the Makers and Crafting section on Twitch. They have everything from blacksmithing, pottery, sewing, woodworking, and custom keyboards as I mentioned above. I have a lot of DIY things I already do, so it’s kind of silly how I never record anything as I go. I’m sure I missed out a lot by not trying to build an online presence earlier, but my ambitions are rather meager.

There are definitely people who weekend warrior over there and quickly build a following when their work speaks for itself, and your hard work clearly shows. Usually once someone gets a decent foothold, they can find people to take their livestream footage and turn it in to YouTube videos and dump it there as well as other platforms to build a presence and bring in some money. Given the high cost and small market for making custom keyboards, I think the money would be in the journey for others to follow and support.

Either way, your project looks awesome. You must have been passionate about the idea to follow through with it. One of my main goals this year is to be passionate about things, encourage others who are passionate about making the world better, and avoid being dragged into meaningless arguments about things we can’t change. Hopefully you can find a way to share while getting value out of your hard work.


@Dynamic_Gravity , thank you very much for CC’ing me :blush: and to @KleerKut for sharing his feedback.

@wizarddata : Being a hardcore opensource fan, I would have released the complete documentation and all the hardware/firmware/software sources related to this project which you have - for free! - but under a wise “copyleft” license like GPLv3. So that:

  • My product can become really popular amoung the worldwide community of opensource enthusiasts, who will buy my opensource product even if it is significantly more expensive (i.e. because of a smaller production run) or lacks some features - compared to the existing proprietary products. This community of the people like me - will be my target audience. To please them as much as possible, for the hardware design of my product I will be carefully choosing the chips which don’t require the closed-source binary blobs to function (sometimes it’s hard, but for a product like keyboard it’s definitely possible) - so that my product could get to a popular “Respects Your Freedom” list by a Free Software Foundation after going through their certification process. No keyboards on their list yet :wink: It’s quite easy to imagine a successful crowdfunding for such a product on CrowdSupply, who will also actively help you to deliver your product - see this page for more info

  • Thanks to the restrictions of a “copyleft” license, anyone who wants to release a product based on mine - will have to keep it opensource, give back the sources for all the custom improvements, and mention me as the original creator of this product : so that the people will know me, and those who would like to request some features or just to support my further work - could send me the donations. And, even if someone will “steal” my work without honoring the copyleft license conditions (i.e. refuse to provide the sources for their version of product) - the passionate people of my target audience will not buy it because of the ideological reasons, so such a product could be “steal-proof” even without that patent hassle (which isn’t honored by some countries anyways).

See, it’s one of the few ways how a “small guy” could make a product that’s competitive VS the big corporations - even if just for this “opensource enthusiasts” market. And you can still earn money even with such a generous approach - even if you’d decide to leave the manufacturing of your product to someone else! Earning money isn’t a primary purpose when you’d like to make this world a better place, but it’s still a nice side bonus - and definitely possible even with this “opensource-loving approach”.

What do you think about this business model? :cowboy_hat_face:

It sounds like the Apache 2.0 license is a lot like what you’re looking for - worth a read even if you decide it isn’t.

I’ll pitch in from a corporate engineer’s perspective - I won’t take an ideological stance here, but there are some bad legal implications from this.

Be careful; not enforcing your license can potentially cause you a lot of problems if a hostile entity chooses to come after you/your product. And I would be especially careful with publicly stating that you’re taking an approach like this. If A) some company sees something they want, B) you’ve created a arguable legal opening in this way, and C) they think they can get more money by taking it to court it than it will cost for them to run you out of cash in legal fees, you’re going to have a very bad day.

I appreciate your perspective on this. What you’re describing is pretty much where I settled over the last few days, just for different reasons.

I did look into manufacturing partners to produce my original product early on in the design process. The reality ended up being that the only way to produce cheap PLA parts with the level of quality that I wanted (and in some cases needed ) was to do it myself. The print farms I worked with simply don’t have processes in place to achieve the results I want, out of this material, for a price that is practical for this project. Other materials, where print farms do have these processes in place, are necessarily more expensive. It’s the cheap, fast and good triangle except its cheap, good, and ‘produced by others’.

I decided on the CERN OHL-S V2 license, it requires that iterations on my work be open sourced as well and is worded to be more directly applicable to hardware projects. Also (primarily), another open source hardware company that I like uses the older v1.2 and I’ve interacted with the engineers there to know that they’re some pretty smart cookies. So I copied them. It’s not laziness, it’s efficiency!

I’m still of the opinion that this licensing doesn’t actually do anything for a small timer like me in a practical way (for the same reason as a patent isn’t necessarily useful). But I’m trying not to get too hung up about it. The spirit of open hardware seems to frown on commercial restrictions anyways.

I’ll look forward to interacting with this open source community, I’ve heard about it but haven’t been involved enough to have a feel for it yet.

@NorthernWing It reads like you meant to quote my ‘I wouldn’t really attempt to stop them’ statement, and you’re right about that. Once my keyboard empire really takes off (and it’s coffers overflow) and my designs have more value through market presence than just the hours put into the designs, I’ll have to revisit my stance on that. I’ll just be inattentive in secret for now.