Open Source Inches Its Way into Gadget Market

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"In the software world, there's a rich culture of providing basic open-source building blocks like compilers, editors, support libraries and operating systems," says Adams of the Frankencamera project. "Unfortunately, chip manufacturing is an inherently expensive business, and there's far less room for the kind of altruistic sharing that seems to be the major motivator behind a lot of open-source contributors. Having to sign [non-disclosure agreements] to even see how to use a part like an image sensor is common."

Although he and his fellow Frankencamera developers have encountered hesitation or refusals from companies they've approached to acquire information to help them build their digital camera, they have come across some willing to contribute — in particular because of the open-source aspect of their project. (Most of the Frankencamera's electronics are commodity parts that anyone can buy. A few components, such as the camera's power circuitry, were specially designed by the project's team.)

"Companies that are hard to extract information or parts from don't care whether you're planning something open source or commercial — they're equally reticent. People and companies that are willing to help are usually more willing to if it's going to be open source; they know they'll be able to benefit from any results too," says Adams.

The Issue of Intellectual Property

A big question swirling around open-source hardware projects is the legal issue of intellectual property — who owns what (including the whole and the individual parts) in an open-source device, especially if several people are contributing designs? Brendan Scott, a lawyer who specializes in IT law and runs the Web site Open Source Law, strongly advises the creators and lead developers of such projects to address this matter before anybody agrees to make anything.

As for how this should be handled, he says there is no one-size-fits-all answer. "In some cases, it will be better for individuals to retain intellectual property [in what they contribute]; in others, it will be better to transfer it to some holding entity. The main thing about intellectual property in a project is to turn your mind to the issue before you start — or soon after you start — rather than when you finish. By not addressing the issue, you may discover that the issue has been decided for you, perhaps in a way you are not happy with."

Michael Arrington, founder and co-editor of the TechCrunch blog, might agree. In July 2008 he announced plans to create a low-cost Web tablet, later dubbed the CrunchPad. While the hardware development process wouldn't be fully open, Arrington's idea was to "design it, build a few and then open source the specs so anyone can create them," as he wrote in the announcement.

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