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Open Source Hardware

Generating and building free hardware designs are the main features of the open source hardware movement. Coupled with innovative approaches to licencing unhampered hardware products much is being done in this area.

In the same way that there is a world-wide movement for creating and distributing free open source software, the same imperatives apply to hardware.

There are many people involved in creating harware designs and the instructions for building hardware artifacts for manufacture and distribution. This is done in a way that closely mirrors the open source software movement.

The parallels with software are closely matched. Coding in various software languages is functionally similar to the use of 'hardware description language' (HDL) that describes the logic design being implemented. All documentation, electronic schematic drawings, circuit board layout, fully identified materials are similar to technical user and programming manuals.

Licencing of open source hardware is similar to what is done with open source software licencing. However, there are some significant legal differences between the two. Specifically, hardware is normally patented because it involves a manufacturing process and the specifics of the process can differentiate similar hardware. Consequently there are quite a number of open licencing regimes that are available and used by different organisations. Determining which licence is most applicable requires specialist legal advise.

Similarly, potential users of open source hardware need their own legal advice as to whether the licence offered by the designers suits what the user needs and wants.

Overall, open source hardware has far greater challenges to overcome compared to open source software. In spite of this, OSH has seen significant growth.

The real differences between hardware and software affects the business models that are appropriate for ongoing open hardware collaboration. In its simplest form, hardware is manufactured in the same factory and re-badged for each vendor. This is the method that underpins the “Made in China” phenomenon. Strictly, this is not what has been envisaged by the open hardware movement but functionally one Asian factory manufacturing for a hundred international clients means that the manufacturing entity holds the technology open for any business that meets the licencing fee. There are no proprietary, philosophical, legal or other impediments that prevent the hardware technology from being shared universally.

Another version of open hardware collaboration can be seen in various franchising operations and manufacturing-under-licence industries.

The opposite to open source hardware is proprietary hardware and for the same reasons as are seen when comparing open source and proprietary software. Patents are essential to controlling proprietary hardware and therefore legal departments are a major part of the proprietary enterprise. The most graphic examples of proprietary hardware in action is seen in the armaments and war industry where national security interests trump any other consideration.

Closely allied to the open source hardware initiative is the open design movement. Because open design deals with the creation of machinery and tangible products of all various types it shares the same philosophies and needs as the open source hardware promoters. This can be seen in the work of the Open Design Foundation in its advocacy for the Open Design Definition.

The open design movement has encouraged the development of open source farming with its heavy reliance on farm machinery. All of these developing open movements are quite recent mirroring the opportunities that present themselves through the 20th and now 21st century technological and scientific knowledge explosion.

The most significant brake on the open design movement's potential is that any effort to deal with real-world products has a substantial cost base imposed by the fact that nuts and bolts, electronic and other parts have a real manufacturing expenditure that does not occur in the development of software.