Let's help fix the patent system together

Adafruit is an open-source hardware company and promotes the values of open source through releasing hardware and software for others to build upon, share and improve. We use open source licenses which use copyright, and trademarks for our name and logos. A patent grants limited rights to inventors of a “useful process, machine, article of manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof”. For hardware this is incredibly complicated and "patent trolls" abuse the patent system on a regular basis. There is much-needed reform of the patent and copyright system, instead of complaining about it, Adafruit will try to address some of the issues.

Our founder, Limor "Ladyada" Fried called for patent reform directly to the president of the United States (video 0:43 seconds in).

However it's hypocritical to talk about how patents should or should not be used unless you have some skin in the game, so we decided to get a patent and try to start a defensive patent pool for open-source hardware companies. We were inspired by "Patent X" or what was called the chumby HDK (Hardware developer kit).

Back in 2009 Andrew “bunnie” Huang (EFF Pioneer award winner), engineer and developer of the open source laptop posted this idea as part of the "Chumby HDK" and in an interview with MAKE.

...the most important provision of the chumby HDK license is that in exchange for chumby sharing our technology with you, it requires you, under certain conditions, to share your technology with chumby. Simply put, it protects all of us from, for example, someone taking the chumby design, adding a GPS, patenting that combination, and thereby potentially preventing anyone else (including chumby) from creating a chumby with a GPS in it. I think this is a very reasonable provision, because essentially it creates a pool of cross-licensed patents within the chumby ecosystem. This pool is important because if a troll comes along and decides to threaten the ecosystem by asserting their patent rights to chumby or chumby-derivative products, then the entire pool of created patents are available to fight the troll.

What does this mean for Adafruit? Any patent we have present, past or future will always be available for any open-source hardware company to use free of charge, if a patent troll comes after one of us, we may be able to pool our patents together to fight them off, in the linux world this has worked out, there protective network of royalty-free cross-licenses, this includes over 1,000+ software packages - including popular packages such as Kernel Virtual Machine (KVM), Git, OpenJDK, and WebKit.

...royalty-free to any company, institution or individual that agrees not to assert its patents against the OIN's broad Linux Definitions. The Open Invention Network license Is designed to spread patent protection among its members. This includes patent cross-licenses and releases from claims of patent infringement among its licensees. This, in turn, encourages collaboration between Linux companies. These patents could also be used to defend Linux vendors and developers from anti-Linux companies' legal attacks.

Twitter has also come up with the "Innovator’s Patent Agreement"

The IPA is a new way to do patent assignment that keeps control in the hands of engineers and designers. It is a commitment from Twitter to our employees that patents can only be used for defensive purposes. We will not use the patents from employees’ inventions in offensive litigation without their permission. What’s more, this control flows with the patents, so if we sold them to others, they could only use them as the inventor intended.

Adafruit currently has applied for one patent "Coordinated wearable lighting system". It has not been used offensively or defensively and so far no one has asked to license it, so far it doesn't look like we're going to get it any way, but we tried. We'll continue to try to get at least one so we can have something to share/give away with other companies like ours.

There are other open-source hardware companies with patents, these include:

Modular electronic building systems with magnetic interconnections and methods of using the same

Multiple from Chumby.

What's next? We don't know, a lot of this is "wait and see", we are waiting and seeing.