Today, I’m going to briefly talk about my thoughts behind Open Source material vs. private, company-confidential knowledge and designs.  Initially it’s a scary thought — opening ourselves up to world for everyone to see.  Why would anyone do that? It’s like having a house made of just windows and no doors so that everyone can walk in and take a look — and take anything else they want.

What about security? What about trade secrets? What about our competitive advantage? How will we make money?

These are all valid concerns that every organization should consider carefully before making the leap. While there are many concerns associated with open source design, let’s take a look at the original open source design database — the Patent and Trade Organization.

The common understanding of patent law is that the purpose of patents is to encourage innovation for the greater good. By disclosing the idea to the public, the PTO rewards the inventor by giving them exclusive rights for a limited time. Every patent is available to the public so that people can learn from each other, build off of each other’s innovation to further our society.

Similarly, this is the principle behind open-source design. By sharing information, this promotes accelerated development, improvement and quality. In a closed ecosystem, it is difficult to generate new ideas and gain meaningful insight as to how something will be used. The judging audience is static and ideas tend to dry up quickly. Rather, by adopting an “open” mindset, you can leverage the combined passion and knowledge of the public to further your goal. You can define the rules that people play by but you’re allowing other people to play with you.

Let’s take a look at Tesla and how they’ve handled their patents. They have created an incredible experience which includes a beautiful car that is energy efficient like never before. They are making incredible amounts of $$$ and are very successful, yet they’ve done something that few companies with their success have done. They opened up all of their patents to the public — license free. This mean that every competitor can now copy their designs without any fear of litigation or punishment. Why would they do this? My take on this is that Tesla’s ultimate purpose is not to make money or be the most successful company in the world. Rather, their mission is to “accelerate the worlds transition to sustainable energy.” This is a big, audacious goal that few would dare to take on, but now their decision to share their patents makes sense.  Their mission is rooted in the betterment of society and on the side, they are also able to capitalize on their efforts by creating tangible progress towards sustainable energy — their amazing cars. Time will tell if other companies begin to use Tesla’s patents or not.

An interesting phenomenon happens when you begin to share your designs with the outside world…

  1. Feedback with real people – you’ll actually be able to interact with real people and receive quick feedback about your design/system which is invaluable. Often times, developers rely on internal feedback which is inherently biased and decisions can be made that do not truly reflect the actual user base.
  2. Iterations become more meaningful and faster – With the feedback you receive, you can base real decisions off of actual data that you can validate against. You’ll be able to move these up in the backlog with confidence and be able to test this with people that have provided feedback. They now have incentive to respond to your requests for feedback because they feel part of the process.
  3. Trust in your product grows with external users – As people begin to communicate with you and other users, the natural progression is that communities, user groups, product champions emerge. As they “help” develop the design system/product, they are increasingly invested in the process and they make it their own. They want to share about it with others and the adoption of the overall system increases.
  4. New opportunities are discovered and meaningful ideas are created – Now that you are leveraging the public, you are tapping into a collective knowledge base that you didn’t have access to before. People are naturally creative and if you set up your system as a flexible “library”, users will find new and innovative ways to use your system in ways you may have not considered. This is an exciting tipping point because you’ve created a system that people want to use and it provides real value to them vs. a system that you created in a vacuum that only a fraction of the population care about.