OSHW and Sparkfun TED Talks

Recently I watched the TED talk on Sparkfun, given by the owner of Sparkfun Nathan Seidle. If you are not familiar with TED talks, you really have to check them out. It is a fantastic way to learn about super complex subjects, in a very short period of time, in a easy to understand and concise way. Best of all, they are given by industry leaders who are excellent speakers.

During Nathan's speech he delves into differences between Open Source Hardware development and attempting to protect every idea via patents. While this debate is not new by any means, I find it absolutely fascinating. Essentially it boils down to this, even if you have a patent someone or some company will either steel it or circumvent it. So, why bother in the first place? After all patents are massively expensive and are only enforceable if you are willing to spend countless hours and a fortune on lawyer expenses. So, again why bother?

In stark contrast to this, Nathan decided directly out of college that instead of attempting to lock down every idea and embroil oneself in eternal litigation, that his company would simply innovate. Now, I say "simply innovate" however nothing can be further from simple at all. In order to stay financially viable with this model, simply innovate means they must create new products constantly. Why? The average time until a Sparkfun knock off appears in the market is, ready for this? A measly 12 weeks, can you imagine that, 12 weeks!! I found that astonishing to say the least. However this is also what fuels them to continue to innovate. They simply must to remain profitable.

As a result Sparkfun's portfolio is truly amazing, carrying everything from Arduino to headers. They have weekly product announcements which are often highlighted with a funny video or two. In short, Sparkfun is an amazing model of #OSHW and how to make a successful business out of it while making it look easy. So kudos to you Sparkfun!

So what do you think? Will you patent your next idea or continually innovate? Chime in, I would love to hear your opinions!


  • @James I couldn’t agree with you more. While patents do have their place, they do tend to prevent innovation as it forces others to simply break the current patent by modifying some nuance of the current patented design there by circumventing it. This “new” product is now patentable and the cycle repeats. However the resulting product is not one which solves the problem the best but rather one which circumvents the legalities of ownership. While this is not always true, I cannot help but notice this every time I enter pet stores, especially in the retractable leash isle.
    The best solution (albeit subjective) is the lock/unlock mechanism located nearest the trigger finger which is automatically engaged if the pet begins to pull hard. As other companies tried to compete in this billion dollar arena, they needed to break the patent or suffer the wrath of the other company’s lawyers. So a “new” stifling way is developed. This new method locks/unlocks the leash via willing fully engaging a button activated by the pet owners thumb.
    While both do accomplish the task of locking or unlocking the pet at the push of a button, one does it with the added advantage of being somewhat automatic. This small but very important differentiation provides a greater protection for the pet. Who, might be inclined to chase a rogue squirrel into oncoming traffic while the pet owner is distracted.
    So, while this is a valid solution, it is clearly not the best solution for the problem and dilutes the market with subpar products.

  • In my opinion, patents are cool, but I feel like patents have inadvertently caused a slowdown in innovation and creativity. There are patents all over the place for so many things, and although it seems like patents are necessary to protect a new idea, I feel like it’s more beneficial to open source than to patent.

    When I was trying to get a patent, I came across open sourcing, and a man whose name I believe was Mitch. He patented his design, and released it to the world. He got a decent amount of money, and a decent amount of popularity. But then he tried open sourcing that product. Almost immediately, he received more money, more popularity, and a whole bunch of people trying to modify and improve his design. Those people contacted Mitch and told him about their improvements, or ideas, giving him knowledge that he wouldn’t have had if he didn’t open source his product.

    At the current moment, I believe that patenting is old fashioned, and that open sourcing will give the world the ability to innovate faster than ever before. If I ever invent something in the future, I would want to keep it open source. But that’s just my two cents.

    James Chin

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