Open Source and Why People Don’t Steal Ideas

Open Source and Why People Don’t Steal Ideas

Lately, I’ve been hanging around some hacker spaces in the Boston area, meeting people, and seeing what they’re making. One thing that really astounds me is the amount of technical knowledge people share for free. I mean, the work I see is the fruit of highly skilled, highly technical labor… people doing circuit board designs and layouts, writing control loops, developing ethernet boards to connect little hobby gadgets to the internet… in short, really cool stuff.

My initial reaction was to say “This is worth money! Why are you just giving it away?” but of course, at a certain point, money just isn’t a motivating factor. For so called “knowledge workers,” developing news skills and mastering them was the intrinsic reason for putting so much time and effort in to these projects. Here it was first hand: for the scientists and engineers in the area, making something cool was more valuable than the effort it would take to capitalize on an idea.

Which brings me to the second point I raised in the title. Why don’t these ideas don’t get stolen? The answer, as I see it, is that to steal an idea requires caring about it deeply. These people are putting hours of labor into their ideas because they are passionate. A corporation, however, has all sorts of inertia to fight: they have budgets and schedules and resources that are already tied up. Finding the combination  of someone with 1) with passion who 2) cares about that idea 3) has the technical skills and 4) and can convince other people to spend time on it, is very, very difficult.

So keep on making, makers! I can’t wait to see all the cool stuff you all are cooking up!

*picture courtesy of Mark Strozier



Companies that are able to motivate their employees the same way that Makers are self motivated will be the number one work place in the next 10 years. Because who wants to work on stuff they don’t care about?

I realized I know the answer: Baby boomers.

But guess what? They’re getting old and sooner or later will be gone from the workplace. Then what? Then the companies with compelling purpose will win the day.

It always surprises me that other engineers are not more like ‘Makers’. I have my masters degree in mechanical engineering and work for a company that makes medical robotics. (Its cool, but not as cool as it sounds). My entire life I was building, designing, and learning how to do new things. It just seemed natural to me. I looked at something and asked the question “why can’t I do that?”

What still surprises me is when I meet another engineer and ask them what projects they are working on and what interests them. 90% of the time they they don’t have personal projects. I have learned so much from working on personal projects and that knowledge as translated to my work. It may take months or years before the topic comes up, but eventually the things I learned working on my personal projects has helped me at work.

As for stealing the ideas, it does take a lot of work to get a product to market. Typically it requires a lot of work that the initial designer has little interest in doing. I hate sales, writing help manuals, or dealing with the logistics of production. Thank god someone else likes those jobs. But I have seen some projects take off. Makerbot is a great example. Evil Mad Scientists is another group that has taken some products to market.


That seems, to me, to be a camaraderie thing in those environments where it’s “I scratch your back, you scratch mine”.

However, those old silicon valley groups used to be like that, then along came the precursors to apple, microsoft, etc…

For corporations (which include engineers), there is the NIH principle. As in Not Invented Here. If we didn’t think of it, it can’t be any good. Or our approach is better.

As a ROG (Really Old Guy), I’ve been surprised and gratified by the willingness on the part of young techies to open source much of their work. It helps to jump start the work of other people and saves them time and money.

That said, many of the people involved seem to be young and idealistic. They put less emphasis on financial rewards. And perhaps there’s a certain amount of competition to be the first out with the coolest, etc. Sort of like the folks who line up for the newest i-whatever.

If the money people, sharks, corporations and marketers find a way to make money out of the work product, the idealism might disappear pretty quickly.

I hope not.

Well the internet was practically built by programmers sharing their secrets with each other, open source is what’s got us here thus far.

Lots of reasons why ideas don’t get stolen. As Jed says, there’s “not invented here”. Also, often the limited exposure (such as during a Makers Fair) is not enough for others to learn more than general ideas. Then there also seems to be a bit of respect between inventers, and competition, that makes some rather do things their own way.

But ideas do get stolen every day, particularly by sweatshops. A patent offers little real protection, and is useless in many foreign countries. But no matter how good a thief is at reverse engineering, his product quality is no better than his true understanding of the product’s technology and his willingness to avoid cutting corners. Usually we see copycats as brief streaks of light on the horizon; the truly valuable inventors manage to endure.

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