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open source

Giving Your Product Away for Free is the Best Idea You’ve Never Had

30. Sep 2021

Why are we still attempting to solve our issues with the same principles that brought us here in the first place?

Long reads

Today, we often assume that the road to innovation belongs solely in the realm of the market. But this approach has so far not moved us significantly closer to solving our most pressing problems. The climate crisis continues to upend societies, while national and global gaps between rich and poor are on the rise. Quite frankly, the proprietary market is failing on its own.

In the US, it takes on average 23.2 months to obtain a patent. During these two years, the design is kept secret from the world – and after the process, no one else is allowed to use, remix or further develop it for the next 25 years. To call this proprietary design model a handbrake on innovation is an understatement.

Despite decades of corporate attention, public pressure and political negotiations, things are progressing too slow. While we’re waiting for patent lawyers and silo-innovation, the planet is literally burning.

open source

Illustration by Bryan Mathers, The content is registered under a CC BY-SA 4.0 licence. No changes have been made.

What if we did the opposite?

Open-source principles provide a radical and promising alternative to current design methods. With the dawn of the internet, open-source has freed up access to resources, utilities, knowledge and skills on a global scale. By using open-source licenses (and here) and sharing design documentation, we not only enable anyone to remix and develop new methodologies, but also create new ways of doing business. And not only can we discover better alternatives for extinguishing fires, we can adapt solutions according to local needs with zero friction.

With open-source, the entire world is invited to engage in the ideation, development and sharing of new solutions to our common crises that can be easily redesigned and adapted to meet local needs and empower local economies. 

But as a matter of fact, using open-source design principles to solve problems and turn a profit is already being achieved by several successful companies. 

Take Redhat, for example, a provider of data and cloud IT solutions. Redhat has been around for more than 25 years, and in 2012 it became the first open-source company to surpass more than $1 billion in revenue. Another example is Arduino, who has enabled a global community to innovate new open source IoT solutions without having to be hardware-experts, and are earning double-digit million euros from it every year.

If these companies are doing it, surely it must be possible for other businesses to do the same.

So, what’s stopping us?

The sad truth is that the principles and commercial potential of open-source is not yet understood well enough by ordinary business people. As it turns out, the fact that you can profit from giving something away for free is not intuitive for most.

At the same time, whilst open-source enthusiasts and maker-communities may have a progressive drive, designing viable business models is rarely their stronghold or focus.

The classic CFOs and open-source entrepreneurs are two supposed opposites that could benefit immensely from each other. Unfortunately, the current gap between their worlds, wisdom and perspectives is simply too big. 

But what if we could provide the means for them to work together?

What are we doing about it?

We’re curious to explore how the mechanisms of the market and the values of the commons can come together to boost each other. Together with businesses, maker-communities, research institutions and facilitators across seven European countries, the DDC is building an ecosystem for open-source innovation.

Open-source design in bullets

  • Design documentation, bill of materials, and instructions for replicating the design are all shared openly in a user-friendly manner
  • Co-creators from many different fields and origins are actively invited to replicate, remix, improve and customize the design for their own needs and purposes
  • An open-source (e.g. creative commons) license provides the clarity on how and to what extend the design can and should be replicated
  • The business logic is often that the originator actively wants to be copied to gain adoption for a new standard, which unlocks other revenue streams such as transaction fees, consulting, and certification functions, etc.
  • The consequence is often that an industry ends up not with one big all-dominating player but rather a more levelled playing field with different niche players and collaborators. 

Read more on open-source here

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