Last week I had the opportunity to participate in the Open Hardware Summit, an event that is always a highlight of my conference year.  Now in its fourth year, the summit is a chance for the robust community that has grown up around open source hardware to come together, discuss what has been happening, and show off great advances.

By any measure, the open source hardware community is thriving.  Each year the summit gets bigger, the projects and products get more ambitious, and the barrier to entry is lowered.  But this year it did feel like the community was reaching an inflection point.  The world of open source hardware is expanding beyond its original borders, and that presents its own set of challenges and opportunities.  While I raised some of these during the panel that wrapped up the summit, I wanted to expand upon a few of them a bit more.

The State of Licensing and the Law

I touched on this in a blog post last year, and it was the topic of my presentation this year, but my discussions with people at the summit made me think about this further.  While open source hardware looks to open source software for inspiration and guidance, from a legal standpoint it must strike out on its own. Fundamentally this is because, in contrast to software, most hardware is not protected by any type of intellectual property.  

This can lead to a tension.  There are people who are interested in creating “sticky” licenses for open source hardware – licenses that would force people who build upon open source hardware to be open as well.  Unfortunately, without an intellectual property hook, those licenses simply are not enforceable.  

The way to resolve this tension is not to find a novel way to protect hardware with existing intellectual property law, or to create a new type of intellectual property law that is easier to apply to hardware.  For every person who used this right to share designs, there would no doubt be 100 or 1,000 who would use it to reduce sharing.

Instead, it is to find alternatives.  Clear, non-legal descriptions of expectations may not be legally binding, but they will make it easy for good actors to play by the rules.  Legal enforceability is nice, but it is not the only way forward.  There can be a lot of power in publicly calling someone out for violating the rules. 

Letting New People In and Allowing Existing People to Evolve

You cannot effectively enforce the rules until those rules are clear to everyone.  There have been important attempts to help codify what it means to be open source hardware.  Phillip Torrone has written the {unspoken} rules of open source hardware, a strong effort to document some of the informal understandings that have grown up over time.  The open source hardware definitionand best practices, hosted and developed by the fantastic Open Source Hardware Association, are also a huge step forward.  We need more of this.

But to many people, the heart of open source hardware can still feel like a set of gut instincts, community expectations, and hidden rules that are all too easy to run afoul of.  If you are not someone who has already spent a good amount of time in the community, sometimes it can feel like there are unwritten rules just waiting to be inadvertently broken.

For those already deep into the open source hardware community, this may not feel like a problem.  But for a community interested in expanding and evolving, it could be.  

Here is one, but certainly not the only one, way that the lack of clarity can play out.  Over the course of the summit I spoke with a number of people who work for large companies.  These individuals (and presumably their companies) were excited, or at least intrigued, by open source hardware.  I had no reason to believe that their desire to help their companies go open source was not totally sincere.  

But, for all their enthusiasm and interest, they were a bit concerned.  They understood that the open source hardware community is a passionate one, and that they would only get one chance to make a first impression.  But they were not totally sure how to make sure that first impression was a good one.  As a result, the fear of crossing a hidden line may keep them out of open source hardware entirely.

Depending on your perspective, this is either a good thing or a bad thing.  There are plenty of people who don’t really care if large companies engage with open source hardware.  And that is a totally reasonable position to have.  But for people who are at least intrigued by the idea of having large companies embrace open source hardware, this feels like a missed opportunity.  Giving newcomers – even corporate newcomers – greater certainty that the rules are clear will help expand the open source hardware world.

Moving Forward

The bad news is that neither of these challenges can be solved by an arduino robot or flashing LEDs.  They are the kind of unglamorous infrastructure and community building work that feel a bit like documentation – always behind something else on the todo list.  

Furthermore, there is nothing that says that anyone has to do any of it.  The world doesn’t end if the open source hardware community does not figure out an alternative licensing solution.  Similarly, nothing explodes if the only way to really “do” open source hardware is to hang around in the community for a while first.  

Nonetheless, I think not working harder on those things would be a shame.  But I could be wrong.  And I’m happy to be wrong.  My real hope is that if neither of these things happen it is because there was some sort of conscious decision not to let them happen.  While I think it would be a missed opportunity not to do them, the real missed opportunity would be to not do them without even realizing it.

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