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Open Modules for Open Minds Pt.2

HannesHannes

In the first part of Open Modules for Open Minds we have read about the reasons behind choosing an open source license, through interviews with Mutable Instruments, Monome, QuBit Electronix, Befaco, Rebel Technology, HackMe and Music Thing Modular. We’ll now look into how this licensing scheme and the related business model has worked out for them.

Before we get into this, we’ll have to take a little detour and have a look at some of the licenses available out there. The two best known licenses are probably the GNU GPL license and the Creative Commons license, but of course there’s many, many more. Don’t worry, I’ll not get into the hardcore legal aspects of these, this is totally not my area of expertise anyway, but let me try to give you a quick overview:

The GNU GPL License

The main concept behind this license is summed up nicely on the GPL website:

Developers who write software can release it under the terms of the GNU GPL. When they do, it will be free software and stay free software, no matter who changes or distributes the program. We call this copyleft: the software is copyrighted, but instead of using those rights to restrict users like proprietary software does, we use them to ensure that every user has freedom.

One fundamental concept in the GPL license (and copyleft in general) is that it will be preserved throughout all modifications of the work that has been licensed with it. In other words, if I write a piece of software and distribute it with a GPL license, people can modify, redistribute it, even sell it, but they’ll always have to do it under the GPL license, so others can do the same. This also means that the source code of any modified version of the software will have to be made publicly available.

There is a “weaker” version of the GPL, called GNU Lesser General Public License (LGPL), which permits the user to bundle open source software with non-ope-source one, without having to release the source code of the whole. This is often used for libraries and shared components, so only the source code for these components needs to be made publicly available, not the one of the software that uses them, this would not be possible when using the GPL license.

Permissive Licenses

Once you dig into the world of open source you’ll find that there’s a huge list of licenses, many of which can be grouped under the term “permissive license”. A permissive license is basically one that does not have a strong “share alike” requirement. This means that in some cases modified versions of the source code might be redistributed with a different license and might not be open source anymore. The best known examples in this category are the MIT and the BSD licenses. Now, if you really want to know how they all work, Wikipedia has a nice comparison chart for you.

Creative Commons License

While most open source licenses have been created for software (The GPL for instance is the main license behind the Linux OS) Creative Commons is oriented towards creative work in a more broader sense. Anything covered by copyright can be distributed with a CC license: text, images, videos, music and of course also software. There’s more than one CC license from which one can choose: In it’s most restrictive form it will only permit the work to be re-distributed as it is, with the requirement of attributing it to the original author. You choose to permit modifications and/or commercial use and require modifications to be shared with the original license (share-alike). The CC Attribution-ShareAlike license permits you to redistribute and modify the work even for commercial purposes but requires to always share it with the same license it came with, it’s thus somehow similar to other copyleft licenses like the GPL.

Open Source Licensing, Pros and Cons

rmpic

Music Thing Modular’s Radio Music module

Music Thing Modular

Music Thing’s Tom Whitwell does not sell modules or kits directly, he just develops the hardware and software and lets others take care of making an actual product out of it (most of his creations are being sold by Thonk as DIY kits). Both Software and Hardware is distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike license. musicthing.co.uk

Horizontalpitch: did this work well so far? Advantages/disadvantages of this approach?

Tom Whitwell: Advantages = growth, seeing other people enjoy stuff I’ve made. Disadvantages = there is probably risk that people could produce something bad and it would be associated with my name

HP: aren’t you afraid of cheap clones flooding the market?

TW: I don’t earn royalties from the modules, so price is irrelevant to me. If Behringer came along and took my exact designs, using my CC terms properly (i.e. they shared their changes under the same license, they credited me) that would be fine. If they just took the circuit and copied it, I’d be in the same position as every other hardware company that gets ripped off by them.

I don’t think either are likely.

HackMe

HackMe’s Vectr’s hardware are released under the Modified BSD License, it uses open source components like for example the GPL-licensed FreeRTOS. hackmeopen.com

Horizontalpitch: did this work well so far? Advantages/disadvantages of this approach?

Matthew Heins: I saw and continue to see open source as more of an opportunity than a cost. Making open source electronics makes sense as a business because it provides the opportunity to develop a closer relationship with customers who become vested design partners through their own contributions. When people decide to use your design as the basis for their own, they never forget it. I’ve met people who have used some portion of my design in their own work and they’re really grateful. And in the end, it really cost me very little effort to make it available. So, I say there is much to be gained and for me, very little to be lost.

HP: aren’t you afraid of cheap clones flooding the market?

MH: Cheap clones are probably a concern for bigger makers. For me, it’s not terribly likely. My volumes are so low that someone would have to be insane to think it would be a great idea to build a clone. Maybe I’m wrong and maybe one day it’ll happen. I see that it’s becoming a problem for Mutable Instruments, but one could argue that this is a market reaction to perceived high prices. I price my designs very fairly for the amount of effort I put into them and therefore don’t leave a lot of room for a copycat to operate.  If my margins were higher, I think people can rightly figure out that they could do it substantially cheaper buying the parts themselves. Perhaps if my designs grow in popularity, this will become a problem, but for me, it’s a part time job with pretty small numbers. So, I say, if you’ve got the balls to try and make a Vectr yourself, be my guest! It ain’t easy.

QuBit Electronix

QuBit Electronix used two open source projects in their Nebulæ module: Csound and Pure Data. The first one is licensed under a the GNU Lesser General Public License, the second through a license statement of their own (see here). The Nebulæ’s firmware itself is available under a an MIT license. www.qubitelectronix.com

Horizontalpitch: Did open source work well so far? Advantages/disadvantages?

Andrew Ikenberry: Open licenses have worked out great for us. Both open sourcing our own code as well as using code from other people that has been open sourced. One advantage is that people don’t need to ask permission to modify and repost our code for others to use. The biggest disadvantage to open licenses is the possibility of another company using your code to release a competing product.

HP: Aren’t you afraid of cheap clones flooding the market?

AK: I don’t think that cheap clones would necessarily affect our sales. People interested in DIY clone versions of modules are a different demographic than people that purchase our modules brand new.

Befaco

The modules on their website are all licensed with a Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike license (except where otherwise stated), but Befaco goes beyond just distributing their project files, they also share their knowledge through synth-building workshops ( I’ve often heard great praise about those, though I’ve never attended one myself). www.befaco.org

Horizontalpitch: Did open source work well so far? Advantages/disadvantages?

Manu Retamero: Befaco are four guys and we all live out of this. Open source just feels the right thing to do. Never considered another way, to be honest.

HP: aren’t you afraid of cheap clones flooding the market?

MR: Not really. If someone is able to do the same thing, with better quality and lower prices, then we will learn from them and implement their way! See mutable instrument’s example. People are making his boards a lot and is very popular. Everybody talks about them and are trying to copy his designs. That is a signal that he is doing an AMAZING job. And no need to say that he is selling A LOT. If someone wants to copy you it’s really a good sign!

Monome

Monome decided to use a slightly more restrictive license for their projects: Creative Commons Non cCommercial Share Alike. monome.org

Horizontalpitch: Did open source work well so far? Advantages/disadvantages?

Brian Crabtree: We’ve been making grids for nearly a decade now. I partially attribute that longevity to embracing open source. The ability to fully own and change a device to your personal needs or curiosity is still a relatively uncommon quality in a device.

There are disadvantages of course– but in the long run they end up being fairly superficial. The one people think most is that someone will simply copy the thing. But you don’t need source to copy something. Ideas get copied– and when some large corporation copies your thing, well, maybe you’re on to something?

HP:You decided to release the source code with a Creative Commons, non commercial, share alike license. Are you afraid of cheap clones flooding the market?

BC: This was only briefly an issue in the early days, and it was hardly a flood. The problem was that we were inadvertently fueling an economy unlike that which we wanted to support: we still work with local suppliers after all of this time. We’re less vocal about it (as the local movement has been somewhat co-opted and is used as greenwashing), and the global manufacturing sector has become much more nuanced over the last decade. It’s hardly accurate to simplify an argument to “overseas is bad.”

Regarding other grid controllers which now flood the market– they’re not really comparable to the fundamental idea of what we make. The ethos is very different. And the objects themselves reveal my obsession with object-ness. Luckily we have a few retailers now where you can see and hold them in person.

Rebel Technology

All their modules are available under a GPL license for both software and hardware. www.rebeltech.org

Horizontalpitch: Did open source work well so far? Advantages/disadvantages?

Martin Klang: Absolutely, open source is where it’s at! The quirks that come with it you either live with or you improve it to suit your needs. With closed source, you don’t have that option.

HP: Did you use code released under an open license as part of your modules’ software?

MK: Yes, we use several awesome OS libraries and tools: GNU GCC, FreeRTOS, bits and pieces of DSP code from JOS and music-dsp list, avr-gcc, wiring, and now the Particle Photon WiFi module (in our upcoming Open Sound Module).

HP: Aren’t you afraid of cheap clones flooding the market?

MK: Any manufacturer will have this fear. But you have to make a decision about what you think will make you successful. If you think success will come from producing variations on established themes, say a VCA in a different colour, then you need to be able to produce cheaper and market better than the competition. If instead you compete through innovation, then you always have to be several steps ahead, so that even when you’re launching a bleeding edge product you have to already be prototyping the next thing, and the next after that. If you are constantly innovating, then cheap clones won’t affect you so much. The market will always catch up, and a small, independent maker like us can never compete on price with manufacturers that do 100 or 1000 times the volumes we do. But as long as we can stay ahead of the curve, and stay unique, then we don’t have to beat them on price.

Mutable Instruments

Mutable Instruments’ hardware files are released under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike license. The source code is released under the MIT license. Since Braids hit the market some years ago, many DIYers have been creating their own clones of Olivier’s modules. Now with the availability of alternate faceplates from Grayscale this has become even easier and you can sometimes even find clones for sale on the web. mutable-instruments.net

Horizontalpitch: Did open source work well so far? Advantages/disadvantages?

Olivier Gillet: I am quite happy with this choice and never had regrets. That’s the only reliable metric I have, so we can call it a success.

A few disadvantages have appeared on the road, though… Things I initially didn’t think about:

HP: Aren’t you afraid of cheap clones flooding the market?

OG: I’m glad you didn’t use “cheap chinese clones”, that’s such a cliché.

First you have to understand that open-source makes the work of a “cloner” only slightly easier. The availability of the code saves you a couple days trying to dump the microcontroller ROM (or reverse engineering a public firmware update file), and the availability of the schematics/board files saves you a few thousand bucks paying a company in Asia to recreate the layouts, schematics and BOM from the proprietary board you want to clone. “Cloners” will eventually find a way.

Then you still need to figure out how to make the thing, where and how to buy the parts for a good price, what kind of things to look for during production and testing to get excellent quality. There’s a lot of knowledge surrounding the modules that is not in files, but just the know-how of the people involved in their production. Then you need to get capital for the tooling. And make yourself known, get people to buy your stuff rather than the original. And provide support (for a product you don’t really understand since you just copied it!), and get a reputation for good customer service. That’s a lot of work, if you’re clever enough to figure all this out, you might as well do the extra effort of designing something mildly original in the first place, because that’s not where all the hard work is… And by the time the clones are out there I’ll have made them obsolete since I’ll have come up with a more refined iteration of the idea! And if you buy the clone you’re not the kind of guy I would have wanted to have as a customer anyway. And if you all put me out of business I have plans B, C and D. Who knows, they might push me to do even more interesting things that Mutable Instruments.

Conclusions

As with all things, there’s always pros and cons, though if we can draw any conclusions from the limited scope of these interviews, it seems that the makers that have embraces open source all seem pretty happy with their choice! But what about the modular synth community, what are we all gaining from this? That’s probably where it gets most interesting. There’s many virtuous circles related to “opening” a product: modifications and improvements by the community can find their way back into the official module, or offer alternate ways of using an instrument to those interested in it.

We’ll read more about this in the third part of this series.

The cover image uses code snippets from the Mutable Instruments Braids and schematics from the Befaco Sallen-Key VCF.

Graphic designer, illustrator and modular synth enthusiast. Founder of Papernoise, a small design studio located in northern Italy, specialised in graphic design for the world of music.