Open source hardware and the free rider dilemna

It is no longer a secret that I am starting a little company that will sell open source hardware and software for energy monitoring. It is mainly based on the Open Energy Monitor project which is registered under the GNU general public license. Although I contributed to the development and promotion of the project myself, I often feel like I’m using other people’s work to make money.

There are now more than 960 registered members in the community, not all of them are active and quite a few contribute actively to the development of the project. But does that mean that the others are just passive members? free riders? is that fair?

I started toying with the idea of using an arduino to monitor electricity consumption about two years ago, and I found out that someone else (Trystan and Glyn and quite a few others) already started developing that idea and sharing their work and findings online. Sharing their work and code online does not only save other people (actually humanity in general) a lot of time and effort, but it also allows for a much wider scope of fellow tinkerers to review and improve that work.

This time and effort saved can be used in further developing this project, and this is what the famous “standing on each others’ shoulders” means. But what about people who benefit from this work and do not contribute with anything back?

I think that the free rider definition does not apply here, because since using this code and designs does not affect the creators negatively. They chose to share it with the rest of the world. All they’re asking for is credit and recognition. I think if someone uses open source without credits in a closed source project that would yield financial benefit, then we have a problem.

That’s it then! Problem solved! In theory at least, because in the open hardware world, things are a little bit different. Phillip Torrone from adafruit industries and make (yes he’s everywhere) wrote about it here, and so did Jean Claude from JeeLabs in a series of five posts, but I’m going to bring my two cents in my next post.

Stay tuned…

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