It's Healing Time at Arduino

With new foundation, Arduino seeks to a heal long-stewing trademark dispute.

Oct 2 2016, 3:00pm

Image: Golubovy/Shutterstock

For the past couple of years, there have been two Arduinos: Arduino, LLC and Arduino Srl. They look the same, and offer similar (but not necessarily compatible) products, but they have in essence been in competition, to put it mildly. Arduino Srl represents Arduino co-founder Gianluca Martino's unilateral break from the original group of five founders, while the LLC is the primary licensor of the Arduino brand.

It's been an ugly rift, but according to an announcement posted yesterday at (the website of Arduino, LLC) and delivered in-person at the New York Maker Faire, it should now be behind us. A new unified entity called Arduino Holding will handle physical products, while another new entity, the Arduino Foundation, will continue to develop the open-source Arduino IDE.

Some background:

For many, Arduino is synonymous with DIY hardware hacking. It's not unearned: Hobbyists have been tinkering with microcontrollers forever, but the Arduino platform offered (and still offers) tools that allow pretty much anyone to start programming LEDs, robots, and lots and lots of backyard weather stations just out of the box. For some, it's a jumping off point into the deeper world of embedded and real-time systems, while for others it's an end in itself. As such, it mirrors the ethos of the Processing language, which is both a programming learning tool (as originally intended) and a digital art platform and community unto itself.

The Arduino world is based on both Arduino boards—small, simple computers wired into user-friendly systems offering programmable input-output pins, timers, and other features, depending on the board—and the Arduino integrated-development environment (IDE), a piece of free software used for writing and uploading the code that governs an Arduino board. Said code is based on what can seem like its own programming language, but is really a user-friendly subset of C, which is the default language for programming small embedded systems and can be pretty tricky.

So, unlike pretty much every other open-source project ever, Arduino has always had the peculiarity of having a physical product that costs money: the boards. What does it even mean to be open-source hardware? This has caused problems.

In the beginning, Arduino, LLC was formed to license the Arduino name to hardware manufacturers. These manufacturers would (and still do) build Arduino boards to spec and then sell them. The manufacturer responsible for making the boards in Italy was Smart Projects Srl, which was founded by Martino, one of the original five.

Unbeknownst to the rest of the group, in 2008 Martino trademarked the Arduino name in Italy. In a retelling by Massimo Banzi, another of the original five founders, Martino kept this news to himself for almost two years. It was only discovered when lawyers with Arduino, LLC began the process of extending the Arduino trademark beyond the United States. Surprisingly, in Italy it was already registered.

For several years, the two Arduinos cooperated, but this changed in 2014. In 2015, Banzi wrote the following in Make magazine:

A year ago without explanation, Gianluca's manufacturing company stopped cooperating with us and unilaterally stopped paying royalties. So if people bought an Arduino board made in Italy in the last year thinking they were supporting the project they should know that we didn't receive any money for it despite the fact that we designed, documented, maintained and supported those products. (The other manufacturers are still by our side.)

Last November, SmartProjects appointed a new CEO, Mr. Musto, who renamed the company to Arduino Srl and created a website called "Arduino" copying our graphics and layout, claiming to have invented Arduino with no mention of us four. They even started printing this new URL on all the new boards.

Which all sounds pretty sketchy.

But there are also a lot of straight-up Arduino imitators, and, besides that, the DIY hardware universe has naturally expanded and extended otherwise. Nowadays, we have Raspberry Pi, the Texas Instruments Energia platform, Teensyduino, Intel Edison, and others. It's pretty cool. Anyhow, the point is that it makes less and less sense for the Arduino world to remain fractured in a landscape decreasingly dominated by Arduino anyhow. That's my own interpretation of the reconciliation.

Here's what Banzi had to say at Maker Faire: "Today is one of the best days in Arduino history. This allows us to start a new course for Arduino made of constructive dialogue and disruptive innovation in the Education, Makers and IoT fields. The Arduino Foundation will allow us to champion the core values of the Arduino Community within the open source ecosystem and to make our commitment to open source stronger than ever. This is really a new beginning for Arduino!"