Is open-source hardware really “open”?

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Is open-source hardware really “open”?

How open is open-source hardware?

Today, “open” often actually means “closed”

Development based on sharing and collaboration has a long history.

In technology, too, the practice isn’t new, though it wasn’t until the 1990s that interest in the phenomenon of open software first sparked publicly with the recognition of Linux and the release of the Netscape browser’s source code.

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

Pretty much all of that early attention was focused on Open Source Software (OSS), though it is where Open Source Hardware (OSHW) has its roots.

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 let hardware manufacturers self-certify their products as open.

What did this mean to Perens and those taking out such a license? It meant making a set of promises about the availability of documentation for programming the device-driver interface of a specific hardware device.

What did it mean for consumers of those products? It meant they 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.

Perens’ definition was soon expounded upon and tweaked by a plethora of others, leading to the standard definition we have for Open Source Hardware today, that it’s “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.” You can read the rest of the Open Source Hardware Association’s (OSHWA) definition here.

After a brief flurry of initial activity in the late 90’s, OSHW fizzled out for a while, taking a firm backseat to software, until its glorious resurgence in the mid-2000s thanks to several major open source hardware projects and companies, such as OpenCoresReprapArduinoIntel IoT on Instructables and the Open Prothetics Project (because “Prosthetics shouldn’t cost an arm and a leg.”)

But while this renaissance is a good thing, it’s also complicated, because it’s unclear if people truly understand what OSHW is and, perhaps more importantly, what it is not.

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.

“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.”

Not exactly a promising business model, by its pure definition, which is why so many for-profit companies seem to be “hacking” the OSHW system.

“Most of the times [OSHW is] 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.”

Even the Arduino board, once the poster child for OSHW has seen its share of scandal and backlash from the purists in the community.

Sectors like the automotive and furniture industry are also being plagued by the term’s misuse.

The corner cutting seems 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.

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. Or 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.

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.

Sylvie Barak
As a former tech and hardware reporter, ex-military spokesperson and digital content specialist, Sylvie drives much of the sector’s most front-line work with reporters and key online audiences. An excellent writer and tactician, she also brings many of our campaigns to life.

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