TV-B-Gone: Not Your Average Open Source Success Story

by Ostatic Staff - Nov. 04, 2008

There is an interesting story regarding open source hardware making the rounds today. Have you ever heard of TV-B-Gone? I hadn't, until today. It's an invention from Mitch Altman that works like a universal remote, except that it has only one purpose: turning off any TV that is on anywhere, especially in public places. Admittedly, this device could easily get its owner killed during the fourth quarter of a football game in any number of watering holes, but there is a notable open source twist to the story.

 As Mitch Altman himself reports at the Make site, after he initially invented the TV-B-Gone device, he joined forces with his brother, a patent attorney, and applied for a patent. He also reports that within weeks the TV-B-Gone device was a hot seller, and got covered in many media outlets. Soon after this, he decided to open source everything from the board layout to the firmware source code, giving rise to a huge number of hacked and tweaked TV-B-Gone devices and kits. Altman explains:

"I knew about open source, of course, but never considered it viable for hardware until going to my first hacker convention. There I met people who are very critical of patents and other forms of intellectual property law. They see these laws as obsolete and obnoxious. Individuals who want to hack cool ideas to improve upon them and share their results are often preyed upon and silenced by corporate lawyers protecting their clients’ patents. Paradoxically, this stifles the creativity that patents were supposed to encourage. This point of view was an eye-opener for me."

So what were Altman's open source results?

"Hacks increased the product’s popularity, resulting in more sales and more people around the world experiencing the satisfaction of turning off TVs," he says. "Also, since there was an army of TV-B-Goners who emailed me with ideas on how to improve upon my initial design, the next versions of TV-B-Gone remotes were considerably better than the original."

Who says hardware can't benefit from the open source model? Altman's story is an interesting example of how many unusual things can benefit from community contributions. I'm not so sure about his next project, though: The Brain Machine. Sounds like a good way to induce a seizure.