Development based on sharing and collaborative improvement has a long anthropological history.

Technologically, too, the practice is anything but new, though it wasn’t until the 1990s that interest in the phenomenon of open software first leaked into the mainstream with the recognition of Linux and the release of the Netscape browser’s source code.

Indeed, it was in the late 90s that the term “open source” first came into use, when the Open Source Initiative (OSI) was formed as an educational, advocacy and stewardship organization for collaborative development.

Figure 1: OSHW can benefit society and the world at large with creative contributions that can address every manner of concern. (Image courtesy: Mouser Electronics)
Figure 1: OSHW can benefit society and the world at large with creative contributions that can address every manner of concern. (Image courtesy: Mouser Electronics)
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Of course, much of this early attention went to Open Source Software (OSS), though it’s important to note this is also when the first seeds of open source hardware were planted.

In 1997, Bruce Perens (creator of the Open Source Definition, and a co-founder of OSI, as well as a ham radio operator and enthusiast) launched the Open Hardware Certification Program to allow hardware manufacturers to self-certify their products as open. This meant making a set of promises about the availability of documentation for programming the device-driver interface of a specific hardware device. Vendors of certified equipment could then apply the program’s open hardware logo to their packaging and mention in advertising that their devices were certified. Those who bought certified equipment were assured that a change in operating system or even the demise of the manufacturer would not make it impossible to have new software written for their devices. It was the first time the principles of open source had been applied to hardware.

In 1998, a slew of others came out with their own tweaks on what Open Hardware should be, with David Freeman announcing the Open Hardware Specification Project (OHSpec), Troy Benjegerdes making public his intention of starting an entrepreneurial venture to apply the principles of open source software to the design and development of hardware, and Reinoud Lamberts launching Open Design Circuits, a website dedicated to collaboratively designing low cost and open design circuits.

A year later, Dr. Sepehr Kiani, Dr. Ryan Vallance and Dr. Samir Nayfeh joined efforts to apply the open source philosophy to machine design applications and together established the Open Design Foundation (ODF) as a non-profit corporation, and set out to develop an Open Design Definition.

Even today, though there are various forms of OSHW, the standard definition is that it “is hardware whose design is made publicly available so that anyone can study, modify, distribute, make, and sell the design or hardware based on that design.”

The Open Source Hardware Association (OSHWA) goes on to note that “the hardware’s source, the design from which it is made, is available in the preferred format for making modifications to it. Ideally, open source hardware uses readily-available components and materials, standard processes, open infrastructure, unrestricted content, and open-source design tools to maximize the ability of individuals to make and use hardware. Open source hardware gives people the freedom to control their technology while sharing knowledge and encouraging commerce through the open exchange of designs.”

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Despite this initial burst of activity in the late 90s around the nascent concept of OSHW, most of the aforementioned initiatives faded out within a year or two of their inception and only by the mid-2000s would open source hardware again become a hub of activity with the emergence of several major open source hardware projects and companies, such as OpenCores, Reprap, Arduino, Intel IoT on Instructables and the Open Prothetics Project (because “Prosthetics shouldn’t cost an arm and a leg.”)

Figure 2: Arduino provides open-source electronics prototyping platforms based on flexible, easy-to-use hardware and software. (Image courtesy: Mouser Electronics)
Figure 2: Arduino provides open-source electronics prototyping platforms based on flexible, easy-to-use hardware and software. (Image courtesy: Mouser Electronics)

Of course, it stands to reason that OSHW is different from OSS in that it deals with tangible artifacts — machines, devices, or other physical things. If these “things” are truly open, their design will have been released to the public in such a way that anyone can make, modify, distribute, and use them.

According to OSHWA regulations, those who produce “things” under an OSHW license are supposed to make it clear those things are “not manufactured, sold, warrantied, or otherwise sanctioned by the original designer” and that they also don’t use any trademarks owned by the original designer.

The hardware has to be released with documentation including design files, and must allow modification and distribution of those design files.

“As far as what the source files are, it’s really anything that is your source to how you made the product. For some things this is a sewing pattern, for others its schematics and board files, and others it is CAD drawings, or STL files,” said Alicia Gibb founding president of OSHWA. “In other words, if someone else could reasonably recreate your hardware from your files, then you know you’ve shared the source.”

Figure 3: Intel's Edison Boards for Arduino are for Arduino users. These are similar to Arduino Yun (Arduino Sketch, Linux, WiFi & BT) and is compatible with Arduino Uno. (Image courtesy: Mouser Electronics)
Figure 3: Intel’s Edison Boards for Arduino are for Arduino users. These are similar to Arduino Yun (Arduino Sketch, Linux, WiFi & BT) and is compatible with Arduino Uno. (Image courtesy: Mouser Electronics)

Legally the source files generally fall under copyright, so a copyleft, or GPL license will do. CC0, CC-BY and CC-BY-SA are also open source licenses. The hardware is not protected automatically like copyright, however. “The hardware is inherently open as long as you do not patent it. Posting your design and the product also creates prior art, which ensures that nobody else can patent your work either,” said Gibb. So far, so good, and yet, one question still comes up with high frequency: “Just how open is most open source hardware out there today?”

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“Most of the times not very open,” says Stefania Druga, founder at Hackidemia, a global network that designs workshops and kits enabling kids to use curiosity, play, and empathy to solve global challenges. Druga explains that she has often ordered an “open board” or machine – such as a 3D printer or laser cutter – only to find that not only were the plans hard to find, but that accompanying documentation and wikis were either unclear, inconsistent, or both. “I believe Open Hardware has become a brand, like a label of coolness as a result of the growth of maker movement but very few people who use it really respect the guidelines of sharing and accessibility,” she said. Druga believes it is imperative to make the connection between open and accessible, noting, “what is the point in making an open source project if your plans, schematics and code are extremely hard to find? It’s like saying you baked fresh cookies but won’t tell anyone where they are.”

Druga isn’t the only OSHW devotee frustrated with the current state of affairs. Many in the community seem concerned about abuses, as can be seen in the hundreds of comments on github pertaining to the Arduino trademark-based scandal, or the reactions on the OSH forum. The misappropriation of the term “open” on physical things isn’t just restricted to boards. With popular proliferation of the maker movement, even sectors like the automotive and furniture industry are being plagued by the term’s misuse. Druga was able to point to several instances where the OSH logo appeared prominently on a company’s site or presentation, despite their not holding up the standard. “People expect the schematics and code to be open, however, they usually don’t check to see if this is the case,” she said.

The corner cutting, says Druga, appears to proliferate mainly due to the underdeveloped legal framework into which OSHW currently falls, as well as the failure of industry and current economic models to truly respect and embrace real OSHW. On the surface, the legal issues surrounding open data and open hardware have a lot in common with the legal issues around open software. Open source software licensing, however, is by now a relatively robust and mature area of the law, while OSHW licensing is still in its infancy and has much room to grow and develop.

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Despite the growing pains, however, OSHW holds much promise; not just as a nice concept, but as a tool that can actually change humanity for the better. Take FarmBot by Rory Aronson, for example, a project set on opening up agricultural technologies to everyone in order to help humanity grow its food as efficiently as possible. Or Precious Plastics, a series of open source machines being co-opted by Design Academy Eindhoven graduate Dave Hakkens to repurpose waste plastics into new and useful things. More concerned with affordable housing? There’s WikiHouse, the open source construction project which allows users to freely download a series of files, purchase plywood, and cut their own designs out using a CNC router. The pieces then snap together like a giant puzzle (with instructions) and people can even cut out wooden mallets to help knock the joints together. This project is lowering barriers of entry to house building, so almost anyone can do it. Worried about any future energy crises? The team behind Zenman Energy are working on developing a cheap solar concentrator to harness the power of the sun using open source hardware.

And it doesn’t stop there; from open source beehives to building open source cars to open source electrocardiograph machines, open source hardware enthusiasts are enthusiastically attempting to break down barriers, even if some firms haven’t yet learned to go the full distance when it comes to “openness.” It’s a learning curve, and when it comes to OSHW, we’re right at the beginning.

Mouser Electronics has a site dedicated to open source hardware that is intended to cut time spent in researching the best board by providing hours’ worth of research in one convenient spot. The site allows developers to quickly select the appropriate board for their project based on a visual matrix of comparative features. The project dictates what features are needed, and the matrix allows quick comparison on 30 different features/parameters including processor type and speed, memory and expansion capabilities, wireless and wired networking, user interface options, video connectivity, and more. Related, up-to-date documentation is gathered into one place, including user guides, schematics, layout files, and supporting software for deep comparison of each board. Projects made with OSHW can benefit society and the world at large with creative contributions that can address every manner of concern including environmental, entertainment, social, health, security, and communications concerns. The beautiful thing about open source is that it leverages deep instincts within the human race to share and help each other.