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.
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.