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Meet the UD professor helping lead the open hardware movement

A patent is not a “feather in your cap,” according to biomechanics and robotics professor Dustyn Roberts, who is co-chairing the Open Hardware Summit in Philadelphia this year.

Dustyn Roberts. (Courtesy photo)

What’s the biggest challenge the open hardware community faces in its crusade to raise awareness?
According to University of Delaware biomechanics and robots professor Dustyn Roberts, the answer lies in all the buzz and misplaced importance surrounding patenting.
“People think a patent is a feather in your cap,” said Roberts, who, in addition to holding degrees from New York University, Carnegie Mellon University and UD, is a Google Scholar and author of a DIY book titled Making Things Move.

When I’m with the open hardware community, the layers of bullshit are removed.

“Students want it because they think it looks good on their resume,” she said. “Startup companies we work with want them because they think it gives them some sort of protection — when it really actually doesn’t.”
Plus, Roberts said, it just sounds cool to be able to tell someone you own a patent. As a university engineering professor and former founder of a biomechanics and robotics consultancy, Roberts knows firsthand what it feels like to be involved in an intellectual property dispute.
“It’s negative. It feels obscure and opaque,” she said. “The process has to be managed by lawyers, there are non-disclosure agreements. When I’m with the open hardware community, the layers of bullshit are removed.”
At the end of the day, Roberts said, people will find a way to copy your idea, anyway. A patent doesn’t exist to give its holder the exclusive right to produce something. Rather, Roberts said patents exist to give their holders the exclusive right to stop other people from producing something. And that requires time, money and lawyers.
Rather, Roberts said hardware should be about creating a bigger customer base, servicing those customers and engaging with them positively.
“It changes the whole karma of any situation,” said Roberts.

For the second time, Roberts is co-chairing the Open Hardware Summit in Philadelphia on Sept. 19. Now in its sixth year, the summit focuses on educating attendees on how to make physical things without patenting them.
“It’s a little bit academia, a little bit industry, a little bit of a mix of everything trying to come together and share stories of best practices and challenges,” said Roberts. “How do we grow and educate other people about the benefits of this ecosystem?”
For the first few years of its existence, the Open Hardware Summit was held in collaboration with Maker Faire in New York.
“The [summit] is focused on promoting this subset of the maker ecosystem that is focusing on open hardware,” said Roberts. “Although there’s an overlap, there are a lot of independent people who don’t identify themselves as tinkerers or makers, but believe in open hardware as a legal structure, as an industry structure, as a business model, things like that that you wouldn’t necessarily associate with a maker ecosystem.”
Roberts said there are still tickets available for this year’s summit.
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Companies: University of Delaware

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