Makerbot Clone Tests the Limits of Open Source Hardware


Most people who know of Makerbot know them as a one of the leaders in the home 3D printing market.  Fewer people realize that they are also one of the highest profile examples of another movement: open source hardware.  Like open source software, the open source hardware community makes its plans freely available – and usable – to the general public.  This strategy was recently put to the test when another company tried to use Makerbot's plans to make a Makerbot replica – and sell it for 2/3 of the price.

Open Source Hardware

Although the open source hardware community looks to open source software for guidance, there are obvious differences that arise when principles that were developed for virtual goods migrate to the physical world.  Unlike many open source software projects, open source hardware products are not given away for free.  If you want a Makerbot 3D printer from the Makerbot company, they will charge you for it.  However, you can download the plans and schematics for a Makerbot 3D printer and just build your own without having to give Makerbot a dime.

PK staff attorneys building a Makerbot

The one caveat is that Makerbot, and almost every other open source hardware project, retains control of their trademark.  That means that you can make your own Makerbot, but attaching the Makerbot logo to it would be trademark infringement.

This openness has lead to massive innovation.  The current Makerbot model – the Replicator – simply could not exist without the work done by a worldwide community of 3D printing enthusiasts working together to improve 3D printing.  In fact, without another open 3D printing project (the RepRap project), Makerbot probably would not exist at all.

While the open source hardware community has traditionally freely licensed its plans, a good deal of behavior was dictated by community norms, not licenses.  One of the most important norms was that simply “cloning” - that is, making an exact copy of someone else's product and bringing it to market – wasn't cool.  If you were going to copy someone else's idea and bring it to market, you had an obligation, at a minimum, to improve it in some way.  Copying alone was frowned upon, but copying and improving was celebrated (for a larger examination of the unwritten rules of open source hardware, check out this post by Philip Torrone).

Enter TangiBot

Of course, community norms are not legally enforceable.  So it should have come as no surprise when an engineer named Matt Strong decided to set up a Kickstarter campaign to help market his own cloned Makerbot he called the TangiBot.  How would Makerbot and the open source hardware community react?

Makerbot mostly reacted by doing nothing.  In some ways, that is because there was not a lot they could do.  Strong was copying their technical designs, but that was his right.  The only difference, at least in theory, was that Strong was not calling his 3D printer a “Makerbot Replicator.”  He did make reference to Makerbot and the Replicator in his Kickstarter page, but it was mostly as a nominative use to explain the source of his design.  When Strong talked about the Makerbot Replicator, he was not suggesting that he was selling a Makerbot made Makerbot Replicator.  Instead, he was referring to the fact that he was copying a Makerbot Replicator.  Generally speaking, this is a permitted use of someone else's trademark.  After all, there are not a lot of ways that Strong could have told people that he was copying a Makerbot Replicator without using the words “Makerbot Replicator.”  He also made it fairly clear that the 3D printer he was selling was not coming from Makerbot.

Did it Work?

So, was this the end for Makerbot?  It did not appear to be.  On Saturday, Strong's Kickstarter campaign ended, falling about 90% short of his $500,000 goal.  And the reaction from the community was telling.  While at least one high profile community member criticized Strong's use of the Makerbot name in the Kickstarter campaign (a criticism tied more to the frequency of use than the use in general), there were two other strong reactions.

The first was a “bad form” type of reaction.  Strong was seen by some (but certainly not all) as violating the spirit of open source hardware by simply cloning an existing product.  While some people joined the Kickstarter campaign just to comment against it, by and large both the open source hardware and 3D printing community expressed a reluctance to do business with someone who violated the community norms. 

This is an important reaction, but may not be enough to protect the open source hardware community as it grows.  While some people may know the complicated backstory of the relationship between Makerbot and TangiBot, many others will only see a 3D printer that is 33% cheaper than its (apparently identical) competitor.  As the world of open source hardware expands, this type of reputational check against cloning will likely become less effective.

The second was a concern that Strong simply could not pull it off.  Makerbot's popularity is not only tied to the specific design of the machines.  It also flows from a reputation for strong customer service and for well-built actual machines.  Put another way, Makerbot does not just design good machines, it ships good machines.

This highlights a critical difference between hardware and software.  Firefox is a great open source browser.  You can download it from Mozilla's web site, or from any number of other sites.  To some degree, where you get Firefox from does not matter – every copy of Firefox is exactly the same program.

The same cannot be said for hardware.  Even if they are using the exact same designs, each physical item can be very different.  When people buy from Makerbot, they are buying a Makerbot designed and built product.  A 33% discount on a product that does not work may not be a deal.

What Now?

TangiBot failed to make its goal, but it is unlikely to be the last company that tries to market a clone of a Makerbot at a cheaper price (this happens all the time with another hugely successful open source hardware product, the Arduino).  Ultimately, there are at least two interesting lessons to be drawn from this episode.

The first is that the idea of open source hardware is not as fragile as it might appear.  Even though there are not legal barriers to cloning, there are cultural and economic reasons that make it hard.  Keep in mind that it took almost 8 months after the release of Makerbot's Replicator for this question to even come up, and the cloner failed.  Hardware, as they say, is hard. 

The second, and this is discussed in the comments of an article on Hack a Day, is that consumers benefit from this type of competition.  Assuming he had the ability to follow through, Strong's Kickstarter campaign suggests that it is possible to manufacture Makerbot Replicators for less than they are manufactured for today.  It is hard to say where those savings come from – it could be streamlining processes and better sourcing of materials, or it could be from shoddy materials and outsourcing production to less reliable facilities (for what it's worth, Makerbots are built in Brooklyn while it appeared that TangiBots would be built in China).

As open source hardware grows in popularity, it is all but inevitable that we will see more incidents like this.  Since they raise a rich mix of legal, ethical, and normative questions, those incidents are worth paying attention to.  In a developing area like open source hardware, "right" answers are not always obvious.

In the meantime, here are a few more resources about this incident and open source hardware:

Joseph Flaherty wrote a fantastic article examining the moral questions surrounding Tangibot, with quotes from a number of experts, for

The TangiBot Kickstarter comment page became a center for debate, including some backers who backed simply to be able to participate in the comment thread.

All of this happened just in time for the third annual Open Hardware Summit, which will be held in New York City on September 27th.

This spring, Public Knowledge brought members of the open source hardware community to DC in order to begin to explain to policymakers what this whole open source hardware thing is about.  Audio and video from the event can be found here.

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