Is Open Source Hardware In Our Future?

18 Apr, 2007 By: Jeffrey Rowe

Thinking of open source hardware in the same way as open source software may be comparing apples and oranges.

I’m sure that by now most of our readers are familiar with the concept of open source software, and many may have had actual experience with it. From the beginning I’ve been intrigued by the idea of open source software. And, yes, there are a number of open source and free MCAD and ECAD tools out there.

As a refresher, open-source software is software whose source code is available under a license (or arrangement such as the public domain) that permits users to study, change and improve the software, and to redistribute it in modified or unmodified form. It is usually developed in a public, collaborative manner, comparable to user-generated content.

Around 1998, the expression free software was replaced with open source software, a term that many believed to be less ambiguous and, they hoped, would make corporate software vendors feel more comfortable and less vulnerable. The term is most commonly applied to the source code of software that is made available to the general public with either relaxed or nonexistent intellectual property restrictions. The "open source" label came in response to Netscape's announcement of a source code release for Navigator. Netscape eventually licensed and released their code as open source under the name of Mozilla.

Time For Open Source Hardware?

For some time I’ve wondered: If open source describes the principles and methodologies used to promote open access to the design and production processes for various technologies, products and resources, could its basic principles be applied to hardware in a manner analogous to software? After all, the aim of open source anything is to let the product be more understandable, modifiable, copyable, reliable or accessible, while it is still marketable as a viable product for payment, so why not apply it to hardware? Although I’d had thoughts on this from the hardware side, I really hadn’t seen or heard much that echoed my sentiments -- that is, until last week.

I received an interesting email from Mitch Free, president and CEO of He posed the question, "Should certain product manufacturers publish their designs for anyone to download and move toward an open source (hardware, not software) model?"

He thinks so. Why? Because it would enable the masses to proliferate their low-margin hardware platform and allow them to sell the high-margin consumables or data content.

This notion of open source hardware is not exactly new, but it hasn't gathered nearly the momentum that we've seen in the software community. Can hardware designs be free in the same sense that software can be free? In many cases, I would have to say yes.

Open source hardware refers to hardware for which all the design information is made available to the general public. Open source hardware may be based on a free hardware design, or the design on which it is based may be restricted in some way. Thus far, some of the most notable open source hardware projects have included computers and computer components, telephones, vehicles and even a self-replicating 3D printer.

One of the first and leading proponents of open source hardware was Richard Stallman, an acclaimed software freedom activist, hacker and software developer. In September 1983, he launched the GNU Project to create a free UNIX-like operating system, and has been the project's lead architect and organizer. So it was only natural that he carry over his philosophy of open source software to the hardware side.

He says, “Free software is often available for zero price, since it often costs you nothing to make your own copy. Thus the tendency to confuse free with gratis. For hardware, the difference between free and gratis is more clear-cut; you can't download hardware through the Net, and we don't have automatic copiers for hardware. (Maybe nanotechnology will provide that capability.) So you must expect that making fresh a copy of some hardware will cost you, even if the hardware or design is free. The parts will cost money, and only a very good friend is likely to make circuit boards or solder wires and chips for you as a favor.

"Because copying hardware is so hard, the question of whether we're allowed to do it is not vitally important. I see no social imperative for free hardware designs like the imperative for free software. Freedom to copy software is an important right because it is easy now -- any computer user can do it. Freedom to copy hardware is not as important, because copying hardware is hard to do. Present-day chip and board fabrication technology resembles the printing press. Copying hardware is as difficult as copying books was in the age of the printing press, or more so. So the ethical issue of copying hardware is more like the ethical issue of copying books 50 years ago, than like the issue of copying software today.”

However, Stallman thinks that a number of hardware enthusiasts are interested in developing free hardware designs, either because they have fun designing hardware, or because they want to customize it.

Another early strong proponent of open source hardware was Graham Seaman, although he's not as visible as he once was in this movement. In Seaman’s mind, to fully qualify as “open hardware,” the product must adhere to the following conditions:

  • Information on using the hardware must be available and the interface to the hardware must be explicitly made public, so the hardware can be used freely.
  • The design of the hardware must be made public, so that others can implement it and learn from it.
  • Design software for hardware must be available and the tools used to create the design should be free, so that others can develop and improve the design.

So, while I wouldn’t say that open source hardware is exactly poised to take off in a big way right now, I think that over time it will come into its own as a force to be reckoned with, just as open source software has attracted a devoted and increasingly large audience.

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