Open Source hardware advocates want a hard-core license

Want to let others freely use your hardware design? The OSHW gives you the rules.

Within one day of the release of a definition for "open source" hardware, the document has garnered endorsements from 50 people, many of them affiliated with manufacturing businesses. The document is only in its 0.3 draft version, so it's likely to change before being finalized.

Domino effect
The document is called a "definition" although it is really defining the terms that must, and must not be, included in the license. Can't we all just call it a "license"? Ok, probably not. A license probably has to be more complicated and harder to read than the clear-cut OSHW.

It is straightforward in defining a way for designers to put their work into the public domain. It isn't as concerned about sharing designs but in making sure that everyone has free access to them, to use as they wish. It also does an good job of documenting how the license will apply to derivative works.

On the one hand, I like the fact that it puts a pretty big burden on the designer. There's no question the designer using a license that stems from this definition has no intention of ever trying to collect royalties on the design, though nothing stops her from manufacturing the widget and selling it.

On the other, I'm not so sure why the user/builder of the project must be so coddled. Heaven forbid those builders have to even so much as convert a CAD file. Here's very first term of the license:


The hardware must be released with documentation including design files, and must allow modification and distribution of the design files. Where documentation is not furnished with the physical product, there must be a well-publicized means of obtaining this documentation for no more than a reasonable reproduction cost, preferably downloading via the Internet without charge. The documentation must include design files in the preferred form which a hardware developer would use to modify the design. Deliberately obfuscated design files are not allowed. Intermediate forms analogous to compiled computer code -- such as printer-ready copper artwork from a CAD program -- are not allowed as substitutes. Should the documentation be created utilizing a proprietary CAD program, an open document format shall be provided, ex. pdf; iges; step; etc.

Likewise, the second term says that if software is necessary to make the device work "properly" the designer must include the software under an OSI license with the documentation, or to provide enough documentation so the builder can write the open source software himself.

The writers of this definition want a clear demarcation of what is free and what isn't. You can't just build the device and somehow say, "Here it is. Do what you will." You have to say, "Here it is. Let me show you."

It's hard to predict how an open source hardware revolution could change consumer electronics. There are very few ideas that stem from complete air -- nearly every great new thing has come from modifying something that came before.

That leads me to so many questions:

So who owns the new thing and what payment is required to the one that came before?

If we could build economic structures that didn't rely so much on the idea of "ownership" ... what would that look like?

Would it make every item into a commodity item, where features are equal so cost-to-build is the only factor?

Or would it spur creativity, eliminating the legal perimeters around new ideas?

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