Copyright and Patents: Impact on Developers
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In this article, we’ll be talking to the Raspberry Pi creator and co-founder Eben Upton about how copyright and patents affect him as a creator and inventor. What can we uncover about copyright by digging a little deeper? Eben is a primary source for this information, and there are few better research tools than that. He has experienced this impact first-hand.
A discussion about copyright with a maker
What’s it like having to defend the things that you create?
Eben Upton: “Probably the trademark work is the largest bit. You know, we have this brand. We have this thing [the Raspberry Pi logo] here. And how do you ensure that that is used by third parties?”
“Obviously, you want it to be used by third parties. You want third parties to use the Raspberry Pi brand, and for the Raspberry Pi logo to refer to things that are authentically Raspberry Pi’s. What we don’t want is for people to maliciously describe things that aren’t Raspberry Pi as being Raspberry Pi, in an attempt to make those things attractive by association with something they’re not really associated with.”
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“What tends to happen more often is people who are enthusiastic about Raspberry Pi will go and use the brand or the name in some way that, innocently and inadvertently, creates confusion. So we spend quite a lot of time looking at how people are using the Raspberry Pi brand online and then helping people understand what their obligations are.”
How do you decide what you put into the open space or what sort of licences you release things under?
EU: “I guess the first question when you are starting a company is, how am I going to create value? Then the second question is, how am I going to extract that? Licensing bears on that second question.”
“It might be a bit easier to talk to you about magazines, which are more concrete. We publish a number of magazines; we release these under a Creative Commons licence, which is very specific about what you’re allowed to do.”
“I release the magazines here under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike licence. So you can buy a physical magazine from me, or you can get a PDF under those licence titles. What does that let you do?”
“Attribution means you can remix it. You can create a derived product, but you have to say that you got the original from Raspberry Pi. That’s important, and that’s a piece of value, right? That could be all the value that we want. We’re just happy for the stuff to go out into the world, as long as it has the words Raspberry Pi associated with it, so people think of our lovely brand when they’re reading this derived product.”
“Another one is ShareAlike, and that’s a slightly complicated idea, which is that I’m happy to give you a licence to remix this thing. But if you do remix it, you have to release it under a similar licence, and allow other people to remix it. You’re not allowed to be a sink. You’re not allowed to take this thing, remix it, and then hold onto it and exploit it yourself. You have to pay it forward. That’s ShareAlike.”
“Then the other one’s NonCommercial. That’s where I say, OK, you can do all of these things. You can create these derivatives, but you aren’t allowed to profit from it. If you want to profit from it, come to me and I’ll give you a separate commercial licence. That’s an interesting middle ground.”
“A lot of software’s released like this. If I write a piece of code and I release it under a GNU General Public Licence and you want to make a closed, non-free version of it, as long as I have all of the copyright of it, I can both release it to everybody under the GPL, and I can also do a private deal with you to allow you to give me some money, then I’ll let you develop a closed piece of software around this.”
“Sometimes people do that because it gives them this dual business model. It gives them the exposure that comes with giving something away for free, but it retains something valuable: the ability to create a closed derivative that they can monetise.”
“You’ve got to figure out what’s valuable to you. And then you’ve got to find a way to protect that. You have, in your hands, trademarks, copyright, patents, trade secrets. Those are your four corners of the intellectual property [IP] work.”
When somebody does infringe on the trademarks or copyrights that you’ve got, how does it affect you personally as a creator?
EU: “Something like Raspberry Pi, it’s a not-for-profit. It’s not something I’m financially involved with, but it’s something I’ve got a lot of emotional investment in. So yeah, when somebody steals Raspberry Pi IP or maliciously abuses the brand, it’s actually quite a painful thing. It’s kind of painful, on some level, because it’s quite rare.”
“There are a small number of bad actors. But there are enough of them out there that, if you hang around creating value, if you sit there, conspicuously creating value, you will draw the attention of these people over time. You have got to be prepared.”
Have you got any advice for young makers who may end up having to protect their inventions some day?
EU: “I’m not sure this is a good generalisable piece of advice, but I’ve certainly found that, if you hug your IP too closely to yourself, you cut off opportunities to grow. You cut off interesting avenues for yourself, and you cut off roots to scale.”
“Ultimately, Raspberry Pi has scaled because a lot of the software work we do is open. That means that people can build on what we’ve done. Where we’ve struggled, actually, is if you look at the OpenGL, the graphics driver stack. Historically, Raspberry Pi has had a closed stack. It’s inside that closed-source binary firmware. This means that where there are bugs in that system, nobody else can fix them. It’s all down to us. And we’re obviously quite constrained in terms of personnel.”
“What’s been nice over the last year is we made a lot of progress towards using an open driver stack. Replacing that closed driver stack with an open driver stack, you already see unrelated people whom we don’t pay, who are only doing it out of a sense of engineering interest or a sort of public spiritedness, contributing to that stack. And they contribute to the stack because they can.”
“So yeah, the more you’re inclined to hide stuff away, the more you realise that you have to do everything yourself. It was really that decision to cede all but a tiny fraction of the software on the device to the open world, to kind of go out into this Linux ecosystem… that was the thing that allowed a relatively small number of people to build something that has become really very large.”
Did anything Eben had to say surprise you? Can you spot where a surface-level understanding may have missed some of the finer points on this topic?
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Impact of Technology: How To Lead Classroom Discussions
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