Electronic "kits," once the basis of a popular hobby, now form a grey area in FCC regulation. With a few exceptions, kits are not subject to FCC rules, even though their assembly may yield an otherwise FCC-regulated device. Computers, for example, are regulated as to their stray radio-frequency emissions. (Check for the FCC logo on the underside of any laptop.) But is nonetheless legal to sell a computer in kit form, and some companies do, even if its emissions are over the FCC limits.

The legal basis for this quirk lies in the structure of the FCC’s rules, which prohibit the marketing of an unapproved device. Manufacture is not regulated. Neither are the components marketed as a kit, because they are not separately capable of emitting radio-frequency energy. The consumer who assembles the kit for his or her own use ordinarily does not market the end product, which thus escapes regulation entirely.

Lately the FCC has been clamping down on entrepreneurs who attempt to exploit this loophole.

Two cases in the last few weeks both involve the same kit, which builds a 1/10 Watt AM transmitter intended for distributing audio around the home. Both defendants bought and assembled the kits, and offered them for resale, but did not obtain the FCC certification required for most small transmitters. When challenged, both raised essentially the same defense: that they provided a service, not a product. Each argued that the buyer could legally have bought the kit and asked the defendant to assemble it, for a fee. The defendants just saved the buyer some trouble by acquiring the kits themselves and passing on the finished products.

In the FCC’s view, though, the defendants were selling finished transmitters. The fact that the units had originated as kits did not change the outcome — a reasonable reading of the rules.

Having no way to tell for sure, I suspect that many of the engineers now working for the FCC, especially the older folks, got their start as teenagers by assembling kits (as I did), before moving on to design their own gear. Possibly these same people created the exception for kits to as to make the way easier for the teenagers to follow (who, ungratefully, abandoned hardware for programming and then the Internet). Today, though, with legitimate kit-building on the wane and dealers eager to exploit any gap in the rules, it would be sad, but not surprising, if the FCC tightened its rules on electronic kits.

Note for hobbyist readers: FCC approval is not required for home-brew equipment built in quantities of five or less for personal use. Some or all of those five can be given to other people, but may not be sold.