Open-source hardware movement seeks legitimacy

A nonprofit organization, Open Source Hardware Association, is being formed to promote open-source hardware

Inspired by the success of the open-source software movement, a group of technology enthusiasts is looking to unite the fragmented open-source hardware community in an effort to promote hardware innovation.

A group of technologists are establishing the Open Source Hardware Association, formed to promote the creation and sharing of hardware or electronic designs. The association hopes to foster growth in the open-source hardware movement, which carries the open-source ethos of a community working together to tweak and update hardware designs with the goal to improve products.

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The concept of open-source hardware loosely relates to releasing designs of physical hardware -- processors, machines or devices -- to the public for reuse. But there are licensing and legal issues with the concept, as there is with open-source software, and the association hopes to explore those issues while also educating people about the benefits of open hardware, said Alicia Gibb, founder of OSHA.

Open-source hardware is similar to open-source software in that designs could be applied to commercial applications from which companies can make money. While software can be easily reproduced, higher costs could be associated with open-source hardware as manufacturing, material and distribution issues are involved, Gibb said.

"It has many similar principals of open-source software, but differs because hardware is a different beast. Hardware as a physical object has different methods, formats and issues than software," Gibb said.

But the community needs to work together to share, build and upgrade the hardware, which could ultimately lead to sophisticated products, Gibb said. The organization will host the yearly Open Hardware Summit conference in New York City, which will act as a sounding board for hackers, do-it-yourselfers and professionals to discuss devices, manufacturing, design, business and law. Gibb had already been one of the organizers of the conference in the past.

"Open-source hardware is a way to share innovation. We publish all the files needed to improve, make derivatives, or re-manufacture the things built," Gibb said.

The open-source hardware movement is centered around enthusiasts and an audience including fashion designers and artists who want to create specific gadgets. Some projects include the creation of a paper piano, and the ongoing "horticultural dome" project for a vegetable garden in a tent in which environmental conditions can be monitored and controlled remotely. The dome project has raised almost US$8,000 from 158 backers on funding website Kickstarter.

Many projects are centered around the Arduino microcontroller, which Gibb said is the "poster child" of the movement and serves as a great example of how open-source hardware works.

"Arduino has been re-manufactured, re-distributed, built in different forms with different features, and everyone is still thriving," Gibb said.

New open-source hardware designs are capable of creating fully operational PCs. The BeagleBone is a mini-motherboard with ARM CPUs capable of running full Linux operating systems. ARM CPUs are mainly used in smartphones and tablets.

A big name that could soon enter the open-hardware movement is Raspberry Pi Foundation. The now-famous US$25 and $35 PCs from Raspberry Pi will be open sourced in the future, said Eben Upton, executive director of the foundation.

Raspberry Pi hopes to release the hardware schematics and PCB (printed circuit board) design so others could clone them. The PC platform is an uncased motherboard the size of a credit card, but the design has not been open sourced due to an undersupply of some chips and components.

"Open source is well-defined to the point where Arduino is well-designed. There are really good examples in the wild," Upton said.

The Raspberry Pi platform attracted attention last year for its low price and ability to run a broad range of applications.The Pi design could be used for gaming, rendering movies to TV, or for productivity applications, Upton said. The Pi has an ARM processor and a powerful graphics processor capable of handling Blu-ray video.

The open-source hardware movement has also received a boost with organizations like CERN joining the movement.

But work still needs to be done, as the open-source hardware movement isn't as visible as the open-source software movement, said Michael Weinberg, a staff attorney at Public Knowledge, which is organizing an open-source hardware event in Washington, D.C., on Friday.

Weinberg is also interested in open-source hardware and its relationship to law, which has been an issue central to open-source software. One question revolves around the definition of open hardware and licensing, Weinberg said.

"Software is protected by copyright the second it is written. That means there is always a right that is being licensed with an open-source software license. In contrast, many open-source hardware projects will not be the type of thing that are eligible for copyright protection," Weinberg said.

Hardware designs may be eligible for patent protection, but obtaining a patent is a longer and more expensive process, and some may not think that it is worthwhile, Weinberg said.

It is also too early to know if there will be a clash between the open-source hardware community and traditional hardware makers, Weinberg said. Traditional hardware makers may make patent infringement claims against open-source hardware projects, but that has not yet been seen.

"With patent -- unlike copyright -- there is no independent creation defense, so it is always possible that a patent owner claims infringement against a project even if the project was not aware of the patent," Weinberg said.

Raspberry Pi has no legal concerns about open sourcing its PC platform as the organization owns the intellectual property, Upton said.

Nevertheless, the establishment of Open Source Hardware Association is a step in the right direction, Upton said. Questions remain around whether open-source hardware makers will unite around OSHA, but some commitment was needed so people don't differentiate at the hardware level, he said.

"It's a positive development for many reasons. Gives an opportunity to get many people involved," Upton said.

Agam Shah covers PCs, tablets, servers, chips and semiconductors for IDG News Service. Follow Agam on Twitter at @agamsh. Agam's e-mail address is agam_shah@idg.com

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