27 July 2011

The Art of Sharing Online

As has been noted many times before, the Internet is essentially a global, digital copier. Anything that is placed online is, by definition, copied as it is accessed. This means that every site must think about how it would like its content to be shared. That wish may or may not be respected, but if it's not articulated, it certainly won't be.

For "ordinary" creations like text of images, the licensing situation is pretty well-defined. Basically, you can either put things into the public domain, claim maximal, "ordinary", copyright, or something in-between, using Creative Commons licences. But for less common kinds of material, things may not be so obvious.

That seems to be the case with an interesting new site called CircuitBee. Here's the background:

We love making electronics projects, we've not worked on many but we've enjoyed it as a hobby for some time. The one thing we have a problem with however is how to get help with our schematics, how to talk about them and how to show them off to other people.

During our last big electronics project we got really stuck with our design, it mostly worked but we weren't sure how stable it was or how reliable our circuit would be. We went online to look for help and see if anybody would look over our schematics and give us any tips. We found people willing to help easily enough but providing them with our circuit became a real headache.

First we posted a copy of the project files, that didn't help since the some of people helping us used a different version of the software and some of them only used a different schematics package.

Next we decided to post a screenshot of the schematic but our schematic software would only let us capture the current screenshot of the schematic, which wasn't zoomed in enough to be able to make it readable!

Finally we used a PDF print out of the schematic and had to upload it to some hosting online and give the people in the forum a link to the PDF.

After all this messing around just to show someone our schematic we thought that there had to be a better way. We looked around, but didn't find anything that solved this problem, so we set out to create CircuitBee.

CircuitBee takes your schematic project files, converts them into its own internal format and then provides you with an embeddable version of the circuit, similar to Google Maps but for electronics schematics.

You can pan, zoom, go fullscreen, mouse over components to see what they are and we have plans for lots more features yet.

Currently we only support KiCad schematics since we couldn't find good documentation on the file formats used by other software. We intend to expand to other popular schematic capture software like Eagle and Fritzing in the near future.

That sounds like a really good idea. The problem with the site at the moment is that these schematics come with no information about what you can do with them. Are they freely available, available for non-commercial use, subject to the maximal copyright restrictions, etc?

The obvious solution would be allow people who upload their schematics to choose from the full range of Creative Commons licences at that time. These could then be displayed alongside circuit online so that visitors know what the legal situation is.

However, there is one other aspect that could be usefully clarified. As the quoted text explains, "CircuitBee takes your schematic project files, converts them into its own internal format and then provides you with an embeddable version of the circuit, similar to Google Maps but for electronics schematics." The status of that format is not clear. Ideally, it would be released as an open format for all to use - after all, doing so is likely to increase its uptake, for example in other software. Making it a fully open format will also allow others to help improve it.

And that, really, is the art of sharing stuff online: the more freely it is done, the greater the benefits for everyone.

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Ben said...

Thanks for this Glyn,

I definitely think we should add a section for content owners to set the copyright and licenses they want to publish their schematics under. We'll get on that as soon as we can.

As for our file format, we're still in a bit of a state of flux with it right now, but as soon as we're comfortable that no more major changes are going to happen we'll be releasing that as open source most definitely. Its an XML format anyway so is pretty obvious to anyone wishing to have a poke around right now, but we do have some formal specification documents that we'll be publishing in the coming weeks. Perhaps I should write a post about that too...so many intentions its hard to get it all out there.

Anyway, thanks for the advice, we'll definitely be taking up your suggestions.

Glyn Moody said...

@Ben: excellent - good luck with the project.