Limor Fried on Open Source Hardware

I’ve been way behind on watching podcast videos. I had to make time to sit down and watch some out of self defense as my laptop hard drive is about to fill up. I’ve been interested in the work of Limor Fried all through the podcast era. I first came to her via the podcast of her keynote at the 2007 SXSW and have been interested in her work ever since.

Of all the downloaded videos I watched the best, the one I enjoyed most was Limor’s talk on Open Source Hardware. It was full of quotable quotes. I paraphrased a few on Twitter as “Be aware that if you are relying on external validation only, you will get crushed.” and “Another reason you might want to open source your hardware is that you are an ideological freak. Free as in speech, baby!”

One of the points she made was very similar to a point I made at Balticon on a panel about Art, Music and Literature in the Age of Digital Reproducibility. An audience member brought up the issue of someone taking your online work and making merchandise from it. My point was that if you catch someone doing this, of course you should ask them to stop but also be aware that they did you a favor by demonstrating to you that a market exists around your work. If they are able to sell your merchandise, then you with a direct relationship to your own fans ought to be able to kick their ass at it. For whatever value they have cheated you of by their unauthorized use of your work, if it was cheaper than the cost of you paying for market research and it forced you to get off the stick then you came out to the good.

My favorite part of Limor’s talk was when she talked about seeing other people taking her designs, building them and selling them. Her process of getting used to that sounded a little Elizabeth Kubler-Ross with the stages of grief. The funniest part was when she asked someone to at least give her the attribution required by the license on the designs, she was asked to prove that she was the one who designed it. At first this made her mad but then she realized this is the highest compliment that can be paid to her work. Her goal was never to extract every possible nickel from commercial exploitation. If it was, she either would have never openly published the designs or she would have tried (possibly fruitlessly) to use a non-commerical license on them. She ended up finding peace with the idea. As Omar Little would have said on The Wire, “It’s all part of the game.”

Limor’s company, Adafruit, seems to be quite healthy. Selling kits for building these projects is – if I interpret the remarks in her talk correctly – generating revenues over $1 million per year. She doesn’t seem to be hamstrung by giving away her IP. In fact, I think one way to look at it is that you are as strong as what you can give away. I could possibly have looked at making my Spanish to English Kindle dictionary a salable product but I’m happier to give it away. Limor gives away really strong designs and still grosses 7 figures a year in sales. I think that’s a big positive take away from this talk. Give away what you can stand to, and afford to and we all get stronger. Jealously guard what you have and only you get stronger, and sometimes not even that.