Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Paddling Light's Canoe & Kayak Plans: What Price Free?

I've been following Bryan Hansel on Twitter for some time, but just recently did I learn about his free canoe and kayak plans. In this recent post on his blog Paddling Light, he discusses the impact upon his personal finances of giving plans away, and asks readers for advice and opinions: should he continue offering the plans for free? convert to a fully-paid model? shut down the project? His request for feedback seems thoroughly sincere, and not as if he's looking for confirmation of an already-made decision.

As for the plans themselves: he has taken historical plans from a number of sources -- museum publications and books, most notably Adney & Chapelle's Bark Canoes& Skin Boats of North America -- and redrawn and digitized them. Most are appropriate for strip-building, while others would lend themselves more readily to plywood panel (e.g., stitch-and-glue) construction. The plans include classic types that would make wonderful, logical build-it-yourself projects, including a Passamaquoddy ocean canoe and a southwest Greenland kayak, but there are also some types that would draw uncomprehending stares at your local boat ramp: for example, a Beothuk canoe or a King Island kayak. I don't mock these latter designs in the slightest: I love the idea of building such unfamiliar boat types, but one must acknowledge that they are miles out of the ordinary for most paddlers.

Coast Salish canoe lines by Bryan Hansell
Coast Salish canoe 3D by Bryan Hansell
Lines plans and 3D rendering of a Coast Salish canoe, from Paddling Light.
What Hansell offers for free varies from study plans to full-size lines drawings, but he also asks for donations, and has voluntary fees on a sliding scale based on the user's self-reported financial comfort. For full CAD files, he does expect fair payment for the considerable effort that he has put into creating the files. (Hansell also offers his own sea kayak designs for a fixed, reasonable fee.) The plans do not include construction details: these are primarily lines drawings. As such, they assume a good understanding of boat construction methods and a fair amount of insight and creativity to translate into actual finished boats.

I value what Hansell is doing, and I have conflicting advice for readers who are interested in his plans. First: since there's a possibility that the plans could be withdrawn or might no longer be offered free, you might want to do your downloads now. Second: if you download, pay or donate what you can to enable him to continue the project. And Third: whether you download or not, take a look at what Hansell is offering and give him the feedback he seeks concerning whether and how he should continue to offer the plans.

My own advice to Hansell is: continue offering a limited number of plans for free, and put fixed prices on all the others.


  1. The Salish example is interesting. Applegate Boatworks build similar for North-West tribal groups but won't give details of their plans because of a respect for tribal culture. To be honest I don't understand why this should be so as they could easily find details of our coracles and currachs if they wanted to,

    However, the Salish design has given me many ideas for the Roos Carr Boat version and Applegate have said that they use plywood and they did tell me that ideally the bottom should be heavy for stability.

  2. Bryan Hansell is being unfair to himself and to his customers.
    Unscrupulous customers can simply take what they want, for free, with no weight on their conscience.
    Those of us with scruples have no idea what a 'fair price' is: we might not buy for fear of undervaluing the product, or , perhaps, of 'cheating' ourselves.
    Let him put a price on his product and let us choose whether to buy or not.

  3. I haven't looked at Hansell's plans in detail, but it seems that the primary beneficiaries of his work are strip builders who can print out stations patterns full size. He's only one step away from providing NC router files so that you don't even have to print out patterns.
    I think that where his plans are simply digitized versions of existing line drawings of aboriginal kayak and canoe designs, letting them go for free seems appropriate. I think that where Hansell has digitized existing drawings without building these boats himself, he can offer no guarantee of their effectiveness. Bering sea kayaks for instance were designed to carry freight inside the hull so that when paddled empty they tend to be more voluminous than what most recreational kayakers would be used to.
    Also, where drawings are derived from existing Native designs, claiming copyright seems inappropriate. I think that charging a fee for his efforts in digitizing the drawings is appropriate as is claiming a copyright for the digitized expression of the design. But copyright for the lines of the boat should probably belong to whoever first drew them.
    And the particular design of an indigenous kayak should belong to the culture that created it.

    1. Interesting whether a culture can claim copyright in law or morally. Individuals within that culture designed and built the craft based on their own and other cultures previous work and experience.

      The point that contemporary members of such culture also make and use thin gs from designs that are common currency is valid in asking why some specific item should be reserved for an indigenous culture.

  4. Edwin: Legally, I suspect there's no basis in such a cultural claim to copyright. Morally it's a different story. A culture may not place the same value on individual action that ours does, but may consider a design to be a work of "the whole" -- of one's ancestors and peers -- so according to that culture's attitudes, that design "belongs" to them and may be as worthy of protection as our individually-created designs.
    I'm not arguing that this viewpoint is one that we should adopt (or not), but there does seem to be a moral equivalence. Just as an individual in our culture may create a design and put it out there with no claim of IP protection, so too has our culture created designs that are not protected. Just because "we" don't claim a cultural copyright doesn't necessarily mean that another culture shouldn't do so with its own designs. Our legal systems and moral constructs aren't the only valid moralities.
    BTW: I argued from your POV in a past article (don't remember which one), but I just finished reading a history of the American Indian (The Earth Shall Weep, James Wilson) which struck me powerfully, especially how Euro-Americans consistently interpreted morality (and law) in their own terms to suit their own ends, entirely ignoring the moral attitudes and legal constructs of the First Peoples. It made me feel physically ill to be a "beneficiary" of such a venal, selfish, immoral culture.

  5. Such "immorality" wasn't only directed against indigenous peoples but against other Euro-Americans, stolen gold mine claims, board room shenanigans, Gerrymandering and all the rest of it.

    Would it lessen your nausea to accept that in the main descendants of the indigenous also benefit nowadays from the rule of law, even the modern law of copyright? It isn't fashionable to repeat the roll of "crimes" committed by indigenous peoples but I suspect that there are some North-West First Nations people who are a bit uneasy at the former conflicts and slave-holdings of their ancestors.

  6. Edwin: No, that doesn't make me feel any less sick about it. Native Americans had their own systems of social control -- not what we'd call "laws", in that they weren't in written form -- but codified by tradition nonetheless.
    North America certainly wasn't a paradise before Europeans came here, but in many ways, among most of its peoples, its cultural norms were more conducive to social welfare than Europe's. That none of its cultures were pure and free of sin and evil provides no justification for another culture to impose its own ways upon them -- to say nothing of genocide.