This post originally appeared in Volume 75 of Make Magazine

It is appropriate that, ten years after the first Open Hardware Summit, open source hardware was a key part of the initial COVID response. Engineers, designers, and medical professionals collaborated from around the world to design and deploy medical equipment to meet the world’s unprecedented need.

In many ways, this is exactly what participants had in mind during the first open hardware workshop organized by Ayah Bdeir and held in the Eyebeam art space in October of 2010. They were not the first people to discuss open source hardware — open source activists like Bruce Perens had been advocating for open source hardware since the late 1990s. Nonetheless, that gathering helped lay the groundwork for the modern open source hardware movement.

The idea of open hardware does not exist in a void. It builds on decades of engineering, legal, and cultural work by the open source software community. In fact, most of the structures of the open source hardware community started as structures in the open source software community. While many of those central tenants remain the same, a decade of applying software’s ideas of openness to hardware has created a culture all its own.

By 2020, the Open Hardware Summit (virtual this time thanks to COVID) had grown into an international event, bridging together a community spread around the world.

Why 2010?

By 2010, two related trends began to converge. The first was the arrival of “good enough” hardware. Although things like processing power continue to increase rapidly, by 2010 hardware components did not need to be on the absolute cutting edge in order to do genuinely interesting and useful things. As articulated by Bunnie Huang at the 2011 Open Hardware Summit, this dynamic made it relatively easy for small businesses and groups of people to create compelling hardware without having access to multi-million dollar research pipelines.

This relative ease of creation helped spur the second trend: the emergence of a critical mass of companies and communities creating accessible, open hardware. Adafruit, Arduino, Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories, Makerbot, Reprap, Sparkfun — by 2010 these efforts were not isolated incidents. They were a budding community that validated each other.

That community quickly began to formalize itself. That initial workshop was quickly followed by a number of important milestones, including kicking off an annual Open Hardware Summit, creating an open hardware definition, agreeing on a logo, and, led by Alicia Gibb, establishing the Open Source Hardware Association (OSHWA) to house it all. A few years later, the Gathering for Open Science Hardware (GOSH) created a manifesto specifically for bringing open source hardware to the scientific community. All of this happened in collaboration and dialogue with the larger Maker movement, which was also growing.

Growth and Challenges

The needs of the open hardware community growed as more people joined. Once the community grew beyond a relatively small group of people with in-person connections, Phil Torrone realized that writing down the unspoken rules of open source hardware would make it easier for new people to join the community. Documenting the rules acted as an invitation to new community members, giving them confidence to navigate the collective expectations of open source hardware.

This period also helped to show that open source hardware theories also worked in practice. In a prelude to today’s COVID responses, the Safecast radiation sensor project organized radiation level tracking in response to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant disaster. Open source hardware companies multiplied across a wide range of industries. While there were high profile stumbles — such as the flagship open source hardware company Makerbot going closed — the trend in open source hardware was towards growth and new applications.

That growth brought additional challenges. Although OSHWA maintained the community-created definition of open source hardware, no one owned the term ‘open source hardware’. The celebrated “open gear” open source hardware logo was similarly free from any one individual or organization’s control. While this openness brought a number of benefits, it also meant that nothing prevented decidedly not-open hardware from advertising itself as if it was open. This behavior — sometimes described as “open-washing” — threatened to undermine the term open source hardware and render it meaningless.

In response, OSHWA decided to create a new open source hardware certification program and certification logo. The free program gave open source hardware creators and users an easy way to identify open source hardware that met the requirements of the open source hardware definition. Regardless of how a piece of hardware was advertised, a certification logo meant that it complied with the community definition of open source hardware.

The certification program also gave OSHWA an opportunity to consolidate information about one of the other perpetual open source hardware challenges — licensing.

Licensing is one of the biggest differences between open source software and open source hardware. Software is “born closed” — automatically protected by copyright from the moment it is written. A piece of software is fully protected by copyright, meaning that anyone who wants to use it needs permission from the creator — a license. Over the decades, the open source software movement has capitalized on the born closed nature of software, using licenses to spread the requirements of openness beyond people with an inherent interest in openness.

In contrast, major parts of hardware are “born open” — not automatically protected by copyright or any other kind of right. While some parts of hardware may be protected by copyright, other parts may be free by default. This creates a much more complicated rights situation, making it much harder to understand when a license is necessary — and when a license can require other users to be open.

Although existing open source software licenses can be used to license portions of open source hardware, the community also created licenses drafted with the specifics of hardware in mind. Various licenses, such as the TAPR Open Hardware License, the Solderpad Open Hardware License, and the CERN Open Hardware Licenses emerged as options for the community. While these licenses do not necessarily clarify when a piece of hardware requires a license in the first place, they can help give the community confidence that — to the extent that they are necessary — the licenses will perform as expected. CERN’s recently released second generation licenses use “flavor of openness” designations to help make navigation even easier.

Open Source Hardware in 2020

Ten years in, the open source hardware community continues to grow. OSHWA’s certification program includes hardware from over forty countries on five continents. Open Hardware Month activities in October include a similarly international set of events. GOSH continues to help spread open source hardware in the international science community.

The global response to COVID vividly illustrates the importance of open source hardware approaches. Teams from around the world came together to rapidly create, innovate, and distribute a broad range of medical supplies to communities that needed them most. Their open approach allowed improvements and best practices to propagate quickly, and for communities to easily modify equipment as needed.

If 2010’s original open source hardware workshop was about exploring a theory of open source hardware, 2020’s open source hardware community proves that theory out every day.

The Next Ten Years

Open source hardware is all about collaborative innovation, so the next ten years will look very different from the first ten. While we cannot anticipate all of the challenges, some opportunities are clear:

Marking the path for open source hardware success. There are scores of examples of successful open source hardware companies. While they are beginning to highlight common factors for success, we are far from a playbook (or playbooks) for successfully creating open source hardware. Further distilling the lessons for open source hardware success will make it even easier for a broader open source hardware community to succeed.

Diversify Open Source Hardware. Although the open source hardware community is already an international one, it will continue to work to be a community that welcomes and celebrates members from a broad range of backgrounds and experiences. In addition to individual diversity, the open source hardware community will also work to incorporate more types of hardware and hardware applications.

Easier academic paths. Some of open source hardware’s strongest advocates are in academia. Unfortunately, it can be hard for traditional academic structures to recognize contributions to open source hardware. The academic portions of the open source hardware community continue to work to make sure that contributions to open source hardware are valued equally with contributions to less open projects.

More open components. One of open source software’s great strengths is that any given piece of open source software is built upon a number of open source libraries and other building blocks. The open source hardware community will work to build more open components, allowing open source hardware practices to extend deeper into the hardware world.

Keep growing the community. The open source hardware community has grown in the last 10 years, but there is plenty of room to keep going. As open source hardware becomes more common and accessible, the community will continue to expand, finding (and building) new ways to use open source hardware.

This post originally appeared as part of a series on open hardware and key messages for public policy hosted by the Journal of Open Hardware

One of COVID’s early victims was the medical supply chain. As the crisis spread in the spring of 2020, public health authorities began to report shortages of everything from plastic face shields to ventilators. In response, seemingly overnight and from nowhere, a distributed network of open source designers, manufacturers, and distributors — for example, Make4Covid, GetUsPPE, Makers Unite!, and Open Source Medical Supplies — emerged to fill the void.

This open hardware community was not a formal organization. Instead, it was made up of individuals with skills that made up pieces of the puzzle — a textile designer, an electrical engineer, a 3D printer in a makerspace — assembling themselves into an open production network. Using open hardware principles, they designed new equipment (sometimes from scratch), found ways to manufacture that equipment locally with digital production tools or crafting assembly lines, and distributed that equipment to the places that needed it most.

This response is a powerful validation of open hardware design concepts. By developing in the open, and in openly licensing their work, these individuals and networks were able to quickly iterate on designs. Improvements discovered in one corner of the network were quickly adopted across the network, resulting in a rapid convergence on the most effective approaches.

The response allowed society to respond nimbly to the COVID crisis. Informal, distributed networks were able to quickly design the equipment that was needed. That equipment was free to be produced locally in order to address localized shortages. Individual communities could also easily modify the open equipment designs in order to match local medical or manufacturing conditions. Sometimes these local modifications were contributed back to the collective. Other times they were only relevant to one place at one time.

The openness at the heart of open source hardware is what made this fluid response possible. Creators who contributed to collective designs could be confident that their work would not be removed from their control by an entity assering some sort of intellectual property ownership over it. Designs could be modified without negotiating licenses, or even identifying the original creators. Equipment could be manufactured by anyone without reporting to — or obtaining permission from — a central authority.

Although the open hardware response to COVID was extraordinary, there is reason to believe that it could have been even more impactful with more formal support from public health authorities.

Most of the early open hardware development was guided by a combination of the ad hoc interests of response participants and information gleaned from public reports of need by medical responders. This meant that the alignment between the demands of medical responders and the open hardware community was imperfect, leading to inefficiencies on both sides. Public health authorities could have improved the efficiency of the response by playing a matchmaking and information distribution role, clearly communicating need to the open hardware community and capacity to the medical community.

Similarly, the informal networks of open hardware designers, manufacturers, and distributors were not well matched to the existing regulatory frameworks that control some types of medical equipment. While this regulation is important and exists for good reason, public health authorities could have worked with the open hardware community and regulators to develop clear guidelines for how the open hardware community could work within frameworks. These groups also could have worked collaboratively to build new regulations that were most appropriate for the emergency conditions at the time.

As a result, the open hardware response to COVID stands as a tantalizing example of the power of open hardware in a crisis and an opportunity to prepare even more effective responses in the future. While we hope that COVID is a once-in-a-lifetime crisis, many types of crises strain our supply chains. By taking steps to recognize and engage the power of the open hardware community, governments, public health authorities, and emergency responders can enhance their capacity for flexible, effective response to crises in the future.

These steps can take many forms, but they all rely on the decision to take the power of open hardware seriously. Building connections with open hardware networks and government supply chains in advance of the next crisis, forging paths for communication between regulators and non-traditional creators, and making publicly-funded hardware available to open hardware communities will help to supercharge the open hardware response to the next crisis. Failing to take these steps will make it that much harder for the open hardware community to make a full contribution to crisis responses in the future.

Today the ml5.js team unveiled a proposal for a new license to impose ethical use requirements on their open source machine learning library. The community announcement is here. It is full of useful information about the context, purpose, and goals of the project so I encourage you to check it out. This post is intended to be a bit more focused on the license and license mechanisms themselves.

For context, ml5.js is a library that makes machine learning and artificial intelligence accessible to artists, creative coders and students. It is so easy to use that it even allows me to access things like style transfer and body tracking.

While access to powerful machine learning tools allows people to create amazing things, the ml5.js community also recognizes that it can be used for less socially productive applications. They reached out to the Engelberg Center and Tech Policy Clinic to see if there was a way to use their open source license to limit problematic uses of the library.

There is nothing new about attempting to introduce ethical obligations into open source software licenses. The conventional wisdom in open source software licensing today is that this is a bad idea. In part, this is due to the fact that it can be maddeningly hard to define ‘bad uses’ in a license in any robust, accurate way. In a way, this wisdom is codified in the fact that the Open Source Definition maintained by OSI (a prohibition against non-ethical uses would violate the “No Discrimination Against Fields of Endeavor” principle, among others).

Nonetheless, as the popularity of open source software has grown - and the community has become even more aware of the possible negative uses of software - there has been an increased interest in finding a way to mix ethical principles with an open source ethos. The Hippocratic License and Anti-Capitalist Software License are two recent examples.

Within this context, the ml5.js team decided to see if there was a way to bind its community to the ethical principles that they have worked hard to cultivate through the license on the software itself.

The ml5.js Approach

The proposed ml5.js approach relies on three main components:

  1. Separate the license from the community Code of Conduct
  2. Require recognition by a Code of Conduct Committee before a user is formally out of compliance with the Code of Conduct
  3. License ‘decay,’ so that the enhanced obligations of the license decay into a more standard MIT license after three years.

Separate the License from the Community Code of Conduct

One major challenge with attempting to impose ethical obligations via open source software licenses is defining ‘bad.’ Terrorists can become freedom fighters, industrial tools can be used for war, and general purpose code can be used to discriminate against vulnerable communities. Even if one could define ‘bad’ at the moment of drafting, the length of copyright term means that today’s definition would need to apply in 50 or 100 years.

The ml5.js approach separates the license from an evolving Code of Conduct. The license obligates users to comply with the rules established in the Code of Conduct. The Code of Conduct can evolve over time. Equally importantly, the ml5.js community (which tends to skew towards artists and away from lawyers) tends to be more comfortable interpreting and amending Codes of Conduct than licenses.

This approach comes at the cost of legal ambiguity. An activity that is allowed today might become prohibited three, five, or even ten years from now. The excuse provisions in the license itself, as well as the Code of Conduct Committee described below, are designed to mitigate that risk somewhat. Nonetheless, they do not eliminate it. Ultimately, the ml5.js team decided that they were comfortable potentially alienating edge cases in service of making a clear commitment to ethical uses.

Code of Conduct Committee Review of Violations

ml5.js is made up of commits from individuals contributors. Each one of them licenses their code to users under the license for the ml5.js repo. Any one of them could potentially accuse a user of violating the Code of Conduct, which would mean the user was violating the ml5.js license. That could mean that one contributor’s fringe interpretation of the Code of Conduct could disrupt uses that the majority of the ml5.js community found acceptable.

In order to reduce this risk, and to smooth the interpretation of the Code of Conduct, the license requires that a Code of Conduct Committee made up of members from the ml5.js community agree that a user is violating the Code of Conduct before they fall out of compliance with the license. Although this is not a guarantee that the Code of Conduct will be enforced fairly and in a way that matches the ml5.js community’s expectations as a whole, it will hopefully reduce the heckler’s veto that the ambiguous nature of ethical concerns introduce to the process.

License Decay

The extended term of copyright protection can make trying to create a new license dangerous. A poorly thought out license can create problems for decades into the future. The license decay provision of the ml5.js approach represents an attempt to reduce two types of that danger.

The ml5.js library is made up of thousands of individual commits by individual contributors. For the first three years of an individual commits’ existence, that commitment will be licensed under the heightened ml5.js obligations. After three years, that license decays into the widely-used MIT license.

The first danger that this mechanism addresses is what would happen if ml5.js was abandoned by the community. As long as ml5.js is in active development, the ml5.js library as a whole will contain commits that are less than three years old. That means that anyone using the library will be bound to comply with the Code of Conduct. However, if active development ceases, after three years the ml5.js library will no longer contain commits that require compliance with the Code of Conduct and the license will effectively revert to the MIT license.

Additionally, the ml5.js license assumes the existence of a Code of Conduct Committee and, implicitly, of a community that is regularly updating the Code of Conduct itself. If development of ml5.js stopped, it is also likely that the Code of Conduct Committee would stop operating. Decay helps avoid fights over the interpretation of the Code of Conduct well after the Committee has dissolved.

The second danger is simply that this exercise turns out to be a horrible idea. The three year period allows the community to change course. After three years the legacy of this wrong path will be more or less erased.

Will This Work?

Will this approach work? It is hard to say. It is certainly something different. The approach is much more restrictive than traditional open source licensing. It also requires more administrative overhead to operate. As of now, the ml5.js team believes that these costs are worth paying in order to make a strong commitment to ethical uses of the library. The comment period is open now. If you disagree, we would love to hear from you in the repo, on twitter, on Discord, or via email at feedback@ml5js.org.

Oh, and one last thing. Huge thanks to the Blue Oak Council for their model license. Doing something like this is hard, and doing it in a way that the community understands is even harder. Their easy-to-understand license formed the basis of the license we are using. That being said, they do not endorse this idea and any problems that it creates are ours alone.

Keep 3D Printers Unlocked (the comment)

Today I filed comments in support of my petition to expand the scope of the current rule that allows you to unlock your 3D printer and use the material of your choice.

As I explained earlier this year, we are in the middle of an every-three-year process whereby the U.S. Copyright Office gives communities permission to break DRM for specific purposes. In the past, the Copyright Office has included breaking DRM that locks 3D printers to materials from the printer manufacturer on its list.

In addition to requesting a renewal of the 3D printer exemption for the next three years, I also asked the Copyright Office to make two tweaks. The text of the current rule is:

Computer programs that operate 3D printers that employ microchip-reliant technological measures to limit the use of feedstock, when circumvention is accomplished solely for the purpose of using alternative feedstock and not for the purpose of accessing design software, design files, or proprietary data.

The first tweak was to replace feedstock with material. While both of these terms can be used to describe the stuff that printers use to make things, in the time since the original rule was written “material” has been more widely adopted by the industry and community. Updating the language will hopefully avoid any ambiguity in interpreting how it applies

The second tweak was to remove the microchip-reliant language from the exemption. I think that this qualifier is unnecessary. If a printer manufacturer uses DRM to limit third party material, and that DRM falls within the Copyright Office’s authority to regulate, the DRM should fit within the exemption granted by the Copyright Office. Leaving the additional language in the exemption just adds something else that people could litigate over, which would be a waste of everyone’s time.

What happens now? According to the Copyright Office’s website about this process, comments from anyone who opposes this modified exemption are due on February 9 (instructions for filing comments are on the website if you want to oppose it). Replies to those opposition comments (as well as comments from people who have an interest in the issue but do not take a side) are due March 10. If history is any guide, at some point after that the Copyright Office will hold hearings on the proposed exemptions. It is reasonable to expect the new rules by the end of 2021.

(Small) Suggestions for Reforming Copyright

Earlier this year, Senator Thom Tillis (who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, the committee that oversees copyright law) circulated a list of questions asking for input about ways to modernize copyright law. A number of organizations submitted extensive, substantive answers to these questions. Piggybacking on that work, I submitted a brief letter calling for two things.

First, I suggested that one way to modernize copyright law for the “digital age” would be to codify the rule that digitizing a physical object does not create a new copyright in the digitization itself. If you make an archival photograph of a Renaissance painting or a 3D scan of a dinosaur bone, you do not get a new copyright in the digital copy (copyright still applies to the original if it is protected by copyright).

The theory behind this rule is pretty straightforward. Copyright does not reward technical skill or effort. Instead, it attaches to creative works. By their very definition, digitizations of physical objects are designed to capture the work as accurately as possible. Injecting creativity into the process would work against that purpose.

This rule already exists in case law. A 1999 case recognized that photographic copies of public domain images do not get a new copyright because those reproductions do not involve original contributions. That logic was extended to 3D scans in 2008 in an opinion by then Judge (now Supreme Court Justice) Gorsuch. Both of these cases build on an earlier Supreme Court case that rejects a ‘sweat of the brow’ theory that would grant copyright in return for effort regardless of creative contribution. Article 14 of the EU’s new Copyright Directive is also designed to prevent at least some digitizations of public domain works from obtaining new copyright protection (here’s a good summary of that effort).

My letter asks Senator Tillis to integrate these conclusions directly into the text of copyright law. That would hopefully be a step towards ending the practice of cultural institutions attaching licenses (even CC licenses!) to digitized versions of objects in the public domain.

Second, I support a bill by Senator Wyden and Representative Lofgren to reform section 1201. This is the part of copyright law that governs DRM, and sets out the process whereby every three years we need to ask for permission to unlock 3D printers (among many other things).

It is strange that the entire unlocking 3D printers conversation happens in the context of copyright law. No one involved is worried that someone will pirate the software that runs 3D printers. Nonetheless, the current version of section 1201 could allow 3D printer manufacturers to use the fact that the printers run on software to prevent users from printing with third party materials.

The fix is simple enough - require a real nexus between a nominal violation of section 1201 and copyright law in order for liability to attach. If this reform was passed, it would likely eliminate the need to ask for permission to unlock 3D printers at all.

What happens now? It is hard to say. I do hope that my response makes Congress think more seriously about codifying the rule that digitizing an object does not create a new copyright. That will help keep the public domain in the public domain as we move into the digital future.