Friday, April 18, 2008

Naval Gazing

Trolling around YouTube waiting for the latest layer of epoxy to kick tonight I encountered an interesting video which recapitulates something I first considered several months ago with respect to Mothing, namely the degree to which the class has followed and will continue to follow an open- vs. closed-source information and development model.

When I first began following the class, I had no first-hand exposure to Moths, and this remained the case for seven or eight years until purchasing my first boat from abroad in early 2007. This remove allowed me to project all sorts of ideals onto the class which likely bore little resemblance to actual class practices, but seemed nonetheless attractive.

First and foremost was the notion that in this fleet, as opposed to nearly every other dinghy class on Earth, contributions from regular class members to the development of sailing boats
are encouraged and in fact formalized as a goal within the class rules. To wit:

The intention of these class rules is to give the designer and builder the fullest liberty in design and construction, within these rules to develop and produce faster boats.

Though obviously critical for any class with "development" aspirations, such a clearly-stated policy of promoting contributions from "users" of a technology to the development of that technology bears a strong resemblance to the open software movement, of which Linux seems the dominant example.

This "open-source" philosophy is essentially a value judgment on the part of the class, betting that the cumulative contributions of many talented designers and sailors will outperform, if you will, the efforts of any one organization in terms of moving Moth design forward over the long haul. It is also a powerful statement about the value and importance of development itself.

What we have seen recently with the success of Bladerider is in some ways a challenge to this thinking: a corporate entity with commercial interests designing a very competitive and innovative boat and investing heavily in making that boat perform better than its competitors, many of which predate the Bladerider. Some might argue that the Bladerider's success stems in large part (or entirely) from ideas and concepts borrowed from the common practices of the class, including the wand-driven flap, the tilting gantry rudder, and other now-common foiling moth features. Be that as it may, one must nonetheless acknowledge the technical ability which has gone into developing these systems beyond their previous levels of function, only to be copied again and employed by other amateur moth-builders in a kind of reflected wave.

Whatever the reason, the Bladerider has driven an expansion of Moth sailing into populations of sailors who previously seem to have steadfastly ignored the Moth. This "user" population comprises some stellar boathandlers and sailors who seem to have limited interest in the wholesale development aspect of the boat, preferring instead to take a known platform and work diligently to learn to extract the maximum speed from it. This growth has injected new vitality and enthusiasm into the class internationally and has facilitated modest fleet growth even in countries as dinghy averse as the US.

Patents are certainly a potential issue for the class. At least one Moth manufacturer has applied for patents on several of its boat's features. So the issue is real, and that reality invites the class to look collectively at it and take a position.

One might for instance require that all technology used on Moths be licensed to the class under the GPL or something equivalent. Exemptions could be created for commercially available blocks and other commonly used devices - or not, as simple non-patented substitutes are available for almost all current Moth hardware.

But this is hardly realistic: no company will work hard to develop ideas and test them if other builders can simply come along behind and reap the benefits without incurring any costs. At any rate they are unlikely to present a problem to an individual seeking to build a one-off copy of a commercial product, which is the most common objection raised against them. So patents are here to stay.

None of this would have made it onto this blog were it not for the following video, which jogged my memory by providing some examples (mountain biking etc.) of other technologies that have emerged through the user-level efforts of dedicated amateurs, following (in many cases unconsciously) open source models similar to what the Moth class has expressly promoted for decades.


Doug Culnane said...

Very interesting Blog post and Video. I have to do a Blog reply to this as a comment is not comprehensive enough.

Doug Culnane said... ;-)