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Ethics of making $ building DIY modules for other people?
MUFF WIGGLER Forum Index -> Music Tech DIY  
Author Ethics of making $ building DIY modules for other people?
I'm thinking of starting a small business to offer a service of building DIY modules for people who don't have the skills or time to do it themselves (yeah, I know... nothing new) in a way that would primarily NOT take business away from first-party producers. Please read this entire post before you make assumptions.

1) I've read the rather heated discussions around building exact Mutable Instruments eurorack clones, even though Emilie has stated that she doesn't care as long as her guidelines are followed -- so I would only offer the things that they no longer produce (e.g. Braids, Shruthi). But I would like to offer the modified clones, such as Monsoons, Beehive, etc by JakPlugg. AFAIK there would be no real issue with me doing this?

2) Are other open source / freely available designs also doable, such as Ornament & Crime, YuSynth, MFOS? (are there any that I'm missing, that could be used?)

3) What about the circumstance where bare PCBs are readily available from legit sources like Thonk, SynthCube, Modular Addict, or direct from the manufacturer?

Is it a case-by-case basis to get permission to sell built modules? Is there a general rule to abide by, such as "if a bare PCB is available from a legit source, you're free to build it and sell it?" Or is it "You can really only do that if the manufacturer doesn't sell a finished product themselves" ?

(aside: When I buy something like a Barton Dual LFO from SynthCube, who built it? Michael Barton or somebody at SynthCube?)

4) Lastly, once I have determined which modules I can build and sell, what are the restrictions for creating my own branded front panels?

My idea is to start out building modules "for hire" where I would provide a website with some examples of what I could build (and price), and customers would tell me what they want and I'd build it for them. I don't initially plan to have a storefront and a stock of pre-built modules. I just thought I would mention that in case it changes any answers to the above questions.

I want to make sure that I do this ethically. My goal is NOT to rip off the people who do the hard work of designing and testing all of these wonderful circuits, nor to try to pass off someone else's design as my own. I want to fully attribute the original creators, while also making it clear that it is not a first-party production module (so the buyer doesn't bother the original creator with requests for tech support, etc).

Any tips / rules in this regard are appreciated, I don't want to just blindly look at what other people are doing on or Etsy or whatever and assume it's all totally fine with the community.

My business angle will be to cater to a non-English market where domestic sales in the native language, of devices made from domestically sourced electronics parts, would be a huge selling point to the buyers. So I feel like what I would be offering would be rather unique, that many first-party producers could not provide or would not want to provide. The success of this business would NOT be based on stealing business from anyone else. I want to offer a service that is not available in my home market right now.
The simplest reply to all points would be to ask the original designer of the circuits you intend to build. In nearly all cases you'll find it relatively easy to get a hold of them and any weight on your conscience will be lifted.

There have been discussions of various licenses lately and how to appropriately ensure the intent of open-source designs. The truth of our rather small niche is that if someone in Brazil puts out a not-for-profit design and someone in Iceland decides to go against that, stopping them basically comes down to a plea towards ethics. Take that extra moment to be kind and everyone is a little better for it.
Ethics can be pretty personal, so everyone's going to have a different take on the ethics involved here...

If you're looking for people to justify your business plan, you'll get it -- as you surely know there are plenty of people who think it's perfectly fine to do whatever the hell you want with open source module designs as long as you don't break the license/terms.

That said, I don't think there's a way to make such a business building DIY Mutable, etc modules and have all people think it's completely ethical, so you're going to have to be comfortable with the fact that some people will look down on it no matter what you do.

I personally don't think the world needs another person going into business building DIY modules (that they didn't design), but that's got nothing to do with ethics. Instead, I think DIY modules are flooding the for-sale listings, and as someone who would never buy a pre-built DIY module (when I could just build one myself), I find it very annoying. Plus a lot of the micro/nano versions of modules seem like UI nightmares compared to the originals, which also bothers me (the only exception I've seen to this small vs full size issue so far is the UO_c).
I sell my own designs through my website and I also make my schematics publicly available. Since I make my schematics available I know anyone can simply build their own PCB's and sell them as theirs and there is nothing I can do to stop them. It's a risk I'm taking by putting my 'intellectual property' so to speak, online, for free.

I do it this way because I want to give something back to the community from which I learned everything I know about this stuff. These designs are hardly 'new' or groundbreaking, they're build on the shoulders of much smarter people than me. I also believe electronics should be repairable, and having schematics available is certainly facilitating easy repair if need be.

I do get the occasional person who asks me if it's ok for them to build PCB's from the designs I posted online. So far the question came regarding personal use. I'm generally ok with that. If you give me credit for the design that's even better.

Mind, this is not my main source of income, but more of an effort to make my hobby self-sustainable. Currently I'm still running at a loss.. but things look like I'll break even by the end of the year. It's a whole other ball-game when you have to make a living doing this kind of thing.
If somebody wants to buy kits from me, build them, and sell the results, that's great! I make less money on a kit sale than an assembled module, but it also costs me less work, so in principle I'm able to sell more of them and that evens out. I just don't want the resulting built modules to be confused with the ones I assemble myself - customers should know what they're getting - and avoiding confusion is one reason I've recently switched to shipping a different colour of knobs in my kits.

I might even offer a wholesale discount to someone who wants to buy a lot of kits for this purpose. The increased volume makes it worth it.

If somebody wants to download the plans from my Web site and build and sell modules of my design without buying kits from me: well. Doing that is legally allowed by the applicable license, provided they meet the relevant obligations (notably, releasing the equivalent of source code); and that's not any kind of a loophole. I chose that license on purpose, knowing and intending that it would allow such activity. One reason I did, is that having a community of other people building my designs increases the profile of my designs and could be seen as valuable advertising.

However... deciding to go full open-hardware was based on the expectation I'd be making at least enough sales to pay my basic expenses. Instead, where I'm at is that I'm struggling to pay rent each month and watching my savings evaporate. I will be out of business about a year from now if I can't significantly increase my own sales before then. When I'm in this situation, if others start selling my designs in a way that seems likely to take away from my own sales and kill my business, then it's much harder to feel good about it compared to the scenario where I'm making a living selling a module so popular that the market wants more of them than I care to make myself. And if I do go out of business, it means there won't be new designs from me for people to copy in the future, and that doesn't seem to benefit anybody.

The key question is whether the clones or alternate-source versions are selling instead of or in addition to my own.

If we're not talking about a clone, but rather a situation where someone wants to design a new module similar to but not identical to one of mine, something worth considering is that they could pay me for consulting on their new custom design. I'd like to think that the help I could give in that line is worth a lot more than what someone could glean by just looking at my published, finished module designs - and then they'd end up with a new design that they'd own themselves, subject to whatever terms we agreed upon.
In addition to what has been mentioned so far, are there any circuit designers that have set up a licensing fee or similar with builders? e.g. a royalty payment of $X for every module built.
Part of the problem is that “open-source” is a non-descriptive term that is used broadly to describe a huge number of wildly differing licensing setups. You gave four specific examples (Mutable, o&c, MFOS, and yusynth), but none of them are released under the same license. Mutable is basically completely free and open, although my understanding is that Emilie doesn’t really approve of all the clones but is just uninterested in pursuing legal action. O&c is similar but the license is strictly non-commercial. MFOS probably doesn’t count as open-source under the traditional meaning of the term, as my understanding is that Ray’s family still holds and asserts copyright over the designs; they’re meant for personal use, or bought as PCBs from a legit source and then sold at-cost as finished pieces. I can’t recall if yusynth even has a proper license, but in that case I would assume that all rights remain reserved. (This is just from memory and meant to illustrate a point; please do your own research and don’t read this as “permission” to use any of these design in any way.)

I doubt any of these creators have a problem with small scale, “build three, sell two” type situations, especially if you’re buying PCBs in a way that generates income for them, and especially if the modules are not available from the creators as finished products,, but even so, just ask. And if you’re considering some kind of small business or even a little side hustle....seriously, just fuckin ask. In the time it took to write out that big OP, you could have already shot out emails to everyone whose designs you want to build for cash.
I started this way, as I was not making enough to fund my modular habit at the clip it was progressing. I've never made my own clones of open modules, so I'll avoid that part of it, and just talk about building modules with PCB panels and building those for others.
I wrote about it in this article:

At the time, I was still mostly 5U. I was buying bridechamber panels and PCBs, and building those. Then I moved into Euro.

I think the key is present yourself as a builder for hire, and not as an alternate source. I see people selling built and tested versions of my modules on Reverb and I think that is great as long as they are clear that they are not me, and the module was not built by me.

If I saw an e-commerce website with my products being listed, that might make me not feel great, but as far as I know it is legal, so long as the branding and messaging is crystal clear.
bengarland wrote:
In addition to what has been mentioned so far, are there any circuit designers that have set up a licensing fee or similar with builders? e.g. a royalty payment of $X for every module built.

Yes - some have requested royalties, others that some portion of the profits go to charity, others only proper credit. It's a case of asking the designers and going forward on their preferences.

For reference, these were interesting discussions regarding the intent of open-source. Pichenettes is Emilie of Mutable Instruments for context:
Suffice to say the entire scene is more complex than it was back when modular manufacturers could be counted on fingers, but good will still goes a long way.
joem wrote:
Ethics can be pretty personal, so everyone's going to have a different take on the ethics involved here...

Personal ethics is really a different category of ethics to business ethics, which is what is being discussed here. There are many commonly and widely agreed good and bad business practices. For example, most people agree it is good business ethics to provide a product which does what the business claims it does. Most people agree that businesses should not form cartels to fix prices. In most countries those two examples of poor ethics are illegal.

Likewise, it is good business ethics to find out if the provider of open source designs is OK with those designs being used as the basis for establishing your own business. It's also a sustainable business practice, because there are numerous examples of businesses not doing that which have been heavily criticised on social media and even boycotted. Arturia's use of Mutable Instruments' open source designs is a recent example. There was a time when Blue Lantern was a pariah on this forum and boycotted for selling others' designs.
The 4 examples are all different situations. For Mutable Instruments, someone without DIY skills can buy the assembled module. For Ornament and Crime there is no assembled module option. Providing assembly for an O&C module for someone who can't do it themselves shouldn't bother anyone's ethics. As was said above, the best path is to ask the creator before building one of their modules for someone.
dubonaire wrote:
joem wrote:
Ethics can be pretty personal, so everyone's going to have a different take on the ethics involved here...

Personal ethics is really a different category of ethics to business ethics, which is what is being discussed here...

We're getting off topic here but business ethics is ultimately just the application of personal ethics to the business realm, and business ethics vary from business to business. Even in your phrasing of your examples you've noted that, by saying things like "most people agree".
I am delighted if someone wants a fricko module, buys the board and pays someone to build it. Why not?

I do have simplified or early versions of the circuit online, usually, in the public domain, here or at electro-music. So anyone with the skills could adapt the idea and put out their own version, not the same as mine. But the product schematics with the tweaked compnent calues etc are not public: they are what get with the pcb/panel when you pay up.
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