Collaborating with Chinese Copycats – the Open Source Way

3D Robotics Iris Drone Copter

Last year, I bought the book Makers: The New Industrial Revolution by Chris Anderson. Previously the Editor-in-Chief of “Wired” magazine, he set up his own company making model flying drones, each containing a mobile phone “system on a chip” and most often these days including a camera. I think it was very instructive what happened when he found out someone in China was cloning his designs and translating his user manual in Chinese.

Some of the community members were shocked at this “blatant piracy” and asked Chris what he was going to do about it. His answer: Nothing. Instead of pointing legal guns at the person doing this, Chris engaged him instead – human being to human being.

A member called “Hazy” said he’d been working with some Chinese hardware cloning folks, and was the person doing the translation of the documentation into Chinese. Chris complemented him on the speed it had been done, and asked if he’d consider bringing the translation into their official manual. He agreed, so Chris gave him edit access to the project Wiki (a shared, public document editing space), and set things up so that people could switch over from English to the parallel Chinese translation if preferred.

Hazy proceeded to integrate the Chinese version of the manual seamlessly. Then he started correcting errors in the English version too. Chris could see all the commits flowing by and approved them all: they were smart, correct and written in perfect English. Then it got interesting.

Hazy started fixing bugs in the drones software code. At first, Chris thought he’d published documentation changes in the wrong folder; he checked it out, and it was code and his fix was not only correct, but properly documented. Chris thanked him for the fix, and thought little more about it.

But then the code commits kept coming. Hazy was working his way through the issues list, picking off bugs one after another that the Development team had been too busy to handle themselves. Today, Chris considers him to be one of their best Dev team members.

He turned out to be a PhD student in Peking University, who as a kid was fascinated by radio control models, and always wanted his own RC plane. When he could afford one, he and his friends learnt about Chris’s work, but found it inconvenient as it was all documented in English . So, he translated it so Chinese fans could also build on the work. He signs off saying “Thank you for the great work of DIY Drones (Chris Andersons company), and I hope it will help more people make their dreams come true”.

The DIY Drones industry has come on leaps and bounds since. I notice many of the units you can buy ready-assembled (like this Parrot one) can be operated via WiFi using an iPad, which can show the view from the onboard camera as it flies. More advanced models can, if they lose communication with the user – or are running low on fuel or charge – return automatically to the location they originally took off from.

That said, the strategy that Chris followed was “Open Source” done properly. Open things up, and let everyone learn from, then stand on the shoulders, of giants.

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