It’s inevitable that the open source hardware community will continue to grow. But, is there a point where the system gets too large and no longer works? It seems to me that the only thing keeping open source hardware designers in business is that most of the people buying open source products want to support buying from the original designer. Sparkfun is an interesting example of a larger company that copies and resells open source designs. Because Sparkfun believes in open source, they pay the designer a percentage of the profit.
What happens when really large corporations like Walmart start selling open source hardware? Interestingly, Walmart might do the right thing. While they are right on the top of the fortune 500 list, Walmart Labs shows us that they might be one of the few larger corporations that understand that the open source community will eventually affect them. However, Walmart Labs is a small section of much larger publicly traded corporation. When it comes time for Walmart’s board to decide if they should pay royalties to an open source developer, I’m not sure what they will do.
As much as I’d like to believe that the open source economy can continue on it’s current path without reaching a state where greed overcomes generosity, history shows us that humans as a population tend to be greedy. The stock market is a great example of something that once was a wonderful and pure idea to help essentially crowd fund companies. Now, it’s turned into a cutthroat game of gambling where computers buy and sell stock in less than a second to make a profit.
Do we need to change something about the direction we are headed in? I think we should. The point of open source, as I understand it, is to collectively share information of all types such that people can build upon a sound structure and thus advance technology at a faster pace. I have absolutely no problem with someone significantly improving an existing design and then selling it. I have no problem with someone grabbing part of a design and using it in a product of their own. However, I think we need to protect ourselves from someone copying a design exactly and producing it for less.
I’m not a lawyer or claim to know anything about law, but it seems like if you took the creative commons attribute license and added a clause stating that someone replicating and not significantly improving the design must pay 15% royalties to the original designer. In the end I know this doesn’t actually mean anything because the people that want to copy will copy without your permission and it won’t be worth your time dealing with lawyers, but it at least sets a firm boundary that some large corporation might honor.