Alternate Front Panels: Get Permission?

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Jim the Oldbie
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Alternate Front Panels: Get Permission?

Post by Jim the Oldbie » Sun Aug 30, 2020 4:34 am

Hi Kids,

Sorry if this has been covered, I spent some time searching and couldn't really find anything.

Getting back into this stuff after a long absence, I see that alternate front panels for popular modules is a thing. I've thought about trying my hand at it; specifically, making a panel for my NLC 329 phase/flange (eurorack) that mimics the style & color scheme of the original Aries AR-329. (Already got some adorable mini-Aries knobs from Mouser.) Might try a couple of others as well.

Is it common practice to get permission from the original makers for such a thing? I don't plan to go into production or even sell them, but if I end up with a minimum # to fulfill a fab house order, I might give some away if anyone's interested.

What do you think, sirs?
Last edited by Jim the Oldbie on Sun Aug 30, 2020 4:53 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Alternate Front Panels: Get Permission?

Post by htor » Sun Aug 30, 2020 5:16 am

you own the damn thing, do whatever you want!

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Re: Alternate Front Panels: Get Permission?

Post by Kent » Sun Aug 30, 2020 5:48 am

It seems overly cautious. Even if you were making them for sale, asking permission, although respectful, simply invites a 'no' that probably isn't warranted. Nobody cares which color you paint your car...

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Re: Alternate Front Panels: Get Permission?

Post by andrewF » Sun Aug 30, 2020 8:45 am

I really like it when people make their own panels for NLC modules, that is why the panel templates are always posted on the website next to the build guides.

If you want to make them to sell, like the Magpie panels or Clarke panels, that is good too. If they look nice, I'm sure some people will be keen.

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Re: Alternate Front Panels: Get Permission?

Post by loydb » Sun Aug 30, 2020 8:50 am

While you don't really need permission to make them for just you, I've had really good success emailing companies and asking not only permission, but for a copy of the layout spec for the panel. In all but one case they've sent it along with a request I not make the spec or my new panel public.

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Re: Alternate Front Panels: Get Permission?

Post by abelovesfun » Sun Aug 30, 2020 3:24 pm

You can always make your own thing for you.
If you are going to sell them, you need permission, even for small runs. People always think we makers are making x10,000 unit runs, the reality for small makers is much less.
You could be sued for creating brand confusion for selling something that "competes" with a maker's existing product.
I'm always fine with people doing their own thing with my modules, but only for personal use.
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Re: Alternate Front Panels: Get Permission?

Post by breadman » Sun Aug 30, 2020 3:53 pm

abelovesfun wrote:
Sun Aug 30, 2020 3:24 pm
You can always make your own thing for you.
If you are going to sell them, you need permission, even for small runs. People always think we makers are making x10,000 unit runs, the reality for small makers is much less.
You could be sued for creating brand confusion for selling something that "competes" with a maker's existing product.
I'm always fine with people doing their own thing with my modules, but only for personal use.
Respect, but how does an alternate panel for sale (JUST panel not circuit, mind you) take food out of anyone's mouth? You'll always have users with no DIY or design savvy who e.g. will never even consider a module if it doesn't come in a black panel version or has a weird font. Repanelings seem like they would only open up possibilities for these users, not depress sales of existing panels as long as they're quality (yours are quite nice btw).
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Re: Alternate Front Panels: Get Permission?

Post by abelovesfun » Sun Aug 30, 2020 6:47 pm

Honestly, if the scene hadn't become so sketchy, I wouldn't care. But if I allowed it I promise you I would see AI modules with pcb panels for sale on pusherman or reverb that I never touched. Did they buy the PCB form me? I don't know - how would I check?
Suddenly I'm competing with myself.
I also don't personally think PCB panels are that great, which is why I use high quality aluminum ones that cost me a shit ton of money comparably.
That is no offense to people that use them, I get it.
I like to restore old gear, and those look great because they use high quality panels. I recently restored a pair of Urei LA-4s. They look fantastic. A 60 year old piece of gear with PCB panels would not look so good, I suspect.
I get that you could cheaply replace a panel with another PCB panel, but with average modular company lifespan around... 5-10 years (? not scientific), who knows if they'll be around.
New euro users might also think I use what I think to be inferior panels in my designs, which I don't. The whole clone situation requires a lot more complexity and nuance for a new user.
It's just simpler this way. Hate me if you like.
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Re: Alternate Front Panels: Get Permission?

Post by andrewF » Sun Aug 30, 2020 7:08 pm

regarding the longevity of PCB panels -
Driscoll modular synths used PCB panels and were made in the late 70s, so 40+ years old.
Still look great and PCBs were not as good quality back then compared to what we get now.

https://www.matrixsynth.com/2005/09/dri ... dular.html

btw - what do you mean the scene has become sketchy? Did I miss something?

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Re: Alternate Front Panels: Get Permission?

Post by Chaos215bar2 » Sun Aug 30, 2020 7:43 pm

IANAL, but legally speaking, if you took a module sans panel and designed your own from scratch, I don't see that you'd have a problem. Since you're presumably going to be copying the layout and some of the labeling from the original, permission seems like a good idea — if you want to sell what you're making.

With all respect to the creative community responsible for all the great modules out there, "creating brand confusion" and certainly competition are not, to my knowledge, illegal in and of themselves. The former, I believe, comes from trademark law and may help establish a violation, and the latter is generally to be encouraged.

Similarly, there's nothing magic about a PCB panel that's different from a plain aluminum one. Legal issues will come from someone copying aspects of the original's design, and if one were able to prove the rather dubious claim that they designed a replacement panel from scratch, I don't believe they'd lose a lawsuit.

Edit: I guess we were just talking about PCB as a building material for panels. I was thinking about modules that have actual circuit traces on the front panel, like René or Pressure Points. Obviously that adds an additional wrinkle.

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Re: Alternate Front Panels: Get Permission?

Post by Jim the Oldbie » Mon Aug 31, 2020 5:09 am

Thanks for your replies, everyone.

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Re: Alternate Front Panels: Get Permission?

Post by ricko » Fri Sep 18, 2020 6:13 am

I think it is a little more complex. If the old design was really, really novel and distinctive in some way, then copyright could apply. For a panel design, that would have to be things that have not appeared in panels (including analog computerx and industrial panels before) . So Moog -like and ARP -like panels probably dont have anything novel enough, even the graphics on the 2600.

But the Serge/Driscol geometric shapes may have some element of originality.

Remember, copyright is not a moral issue, but a temporary monopoly given to innovators by the state. IP is not property, despite the name. Put out your panels, making sure there is no passing off, and if there is someone who claims you have used something they have rights to (not going to happen), work it out then.

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Re: Alternate Front Panels: Get Permission?

Post by qu.one » Fri Sep 18, 2020 6:26 am

as someone who did this years ago (maybe started the trend), I can say that I had spoken to Tony to get his permission before offering anything for sale. it started as a personal project but once it gained interest, i had to clear it. his concern was that removing a facepanel on a retail module could possibly cause damage that technically wouldn't be under warranty.

for personal use as you're mentioning, do whatever you want :sb:
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Re: Alternate Front Panels: Get Permission?

Post by Flounderguts » Fri Sep 18, 2020 8:06 am

Are module makers registering copyrights on panel design?

I can see logos as a trademark, but we're in for a world of hurt if a knob placement or panel layout gets registered. The people in the IP office don't know/care about modular, and awarding a design copyright could potentially impact all the module makers. What if someone registers, say, the use of an rgb led to indicate pitch and/or modulation?
Then, on the strength of their registration, goes and sends a cease and desist to everyone who uses rgb blinken?

Can of worms.

So far, modular has been self-policing for the most part. I only see commercial panel variations for stuff that has been open-sourced or abandoned. I think that is healthy...but going out and buying a brand-new module simply to measure it and produce 3 alternate panels to sell in your store crosses an ethical line, even though it's probably legally defensible.

I'm interested because I make and sell front panels for the diy version of an active commercial product. I open-sourced it, and anyone can dl the design if they want to make it themselves. I asked the manufacturer about using their logo, and it's cool as long as I don't attempt tp represent their company.

But who knows what lurks beneath the surface if bigger companies (Behringer, Intellijel, Doepfer, etc) turn their legal departments loose on eurorack!
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Re: Alternate Front Panels: Get Permission?

Post by abelovesfun » Fri Sep 18, 2020 1:11 pm

I'd like to add some real info as someone who actually does has a trademark lawyer and doesn't want to sue anyone ever.
I also worked as a digital project manager for companies like Nike, Apple, and Microsoft, as well as small brands for over 10 years when I had a day job. So I know a bit about branding and how the managers of brands think about these things.

It's actually hard to copyright something. The copyright office does not allow trademarks willy nilly. You have to fight for it over multiple rounds and pay thousands of dollars. I am currently in round 2.

Once you have that, you *could sue people for just about anything, because it isn't about the law so much, as it is about legal bullying. If someone sends you a cease an desist, you have to lawyer up, and if you lose, you have to pay the su-er's legal fees. If I were to have my lawyer send a cease and desist, that's $300 off the bat. It gets expensive. Most people would just abide the cease and desist.

So it doesn't matter if you use the logo without permission, or the layout, or even if you copy a design UNLESS you are willing to fight it out. The copyright is more of a scare tactic.

That said: Here are things my lawyer said I could sue for, and they are very broad:
1) Brand confusion
2) Counterfeiting

I don't want anyone to freak out. But I also don't want people to pass on bad legal information.

The reason I have decided to pursue a trademark is more just for security. While I have seen a few small bad actors doing sketchy things, that is not what I am worried about. What I have personally come across that troubles me is retailers on the internet buying PCBs and Panels from me and then, explicitly without permission, packing kits and selling them as my product. That means kits are being sold and I have no idea of the quality of parts. I didn't like that, and I was able to work it out without a lawyer, but it woke me up to how people with good and sometimes bad intentions can engage in behavior that I, as a control freak, freaks me out.

Bottom line is to ask permission and be nice.

PS Intellijel and Doepfer are 1/1000000th the size of Behringer.
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Re: Alternate Front Panels: Get Permission?

Post by mskala » Sat Sep 19, 2020 6:25 am

Flounderguts wrote:
Fri Sep 18, 2020 8:06 am
Are module makers registering copyrights on panel design?

I can see logos as a trademark, but we're in for a world of hurt if a knob placement or panel layout gets registered. The people in the IP office don't know/care about modular, and awarding a design copyright could potentially impact all the module makers.
Do you mean patents? There is such a thing as "registering" a copyright but it doesn't work they way the above implies. Copyrights exist automatically whether they are "registered" or not; registration only lowers the burden of proof in a subsequent lawsuit. Copyrights also aren't "awarded"; patents are. A "design patent" is a specific thing; "design copyright" isn't, even though copyright does sometimes apply to designs.
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Re: Alternate Front Panels: Get Permission?

Post by Flounderguts » Sat Sep 19, 2020 10:17 am

mskala wrote:
Sat Sep 19, 2020 6:25 am
Flounderguts wrote:
Fri Sep 18, 2020 8:06 am
Are module makers registering copyrights on panel design?

I can see logos as a trademark, but we're in for a world of hurt if a knob placement or panel layout gets registered. The people in the IP office don't know/care about modular, and awarding a design copyright could potentially impact all the module makers.
Do you mean patents? There is such a thing as "registering" a copyright but it doesn't work they way the above implies. Copyrights exist automatically whether they are "registered" or not; registration only lowers the burden of proof in a subsequent lawsuit. Copyrights also aren't "awarded"; patents are. A "design patent" is a specific thing; "design copyright" isn't, even though copyright does sometimes apply to designs.
Ok, I deserve that. I *do* understand the differences.

:slapfight:

Yes, copyright protections in the USA begin with no registration upon creation of an artwork. But they are nigh on impossible to enforce (and regionally limited) unless you make a "deposit" and register your work, which must be done within 3 months of creation. It might be argued that a uniquely artistic module panel falls under these protections. If a module maker were to make such a deposit and claim copyright protections in that way, it could be interesting. Especially if they further staked their claim with a copyright symbol (which used to be necessary, but has not been since 1989) which tends to strengthen claims in the same way a land survey does in land claims. Registering non-published static visual art can be a pain.

I was, in fact, conflating copyright and trademark in my previous post. A maker COULD trademark the arrangement or use of certain knobs. Or even a TYPE of synthesis, though it has been limited to trade slogans so far.

These are in no way similar to a patent, which are limited protections awarded in return for publishing your work. Utility patents are notoriously diffucult to obtain and defend in the realm of electronics, as a unique and non-obvious improvement is easy to effect in most circuits. Very few circuits could be patented under the design patent rules, although Peter Blasser may be an exception.

A panel or UI could probably be claimed, though, and the descriptive burden might not be difficult. Seems like a lot of work for a measly 15 years of protection...if you can afford to defend it, that is.
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