Frequently Asked Questions about Open Source Hardware
What is open source hardware?
Our statement of principles puts it like this: "Open source hardware is hardware whose design is made publicly available so that anyone can study, modify, distribute, make, and sell the design or hardware based on that design. The hardware's source, the design from which it is made, is available in the preferred format for making modifications to it."
Open source hardware is also a growing community of companies, individuals, and groups designing and making lots of cool stuff! Some well-known examples include Arduino (an microcontroller development platform), Chumby (a wifi device), MakerBot (a 3D printer) but see this question for more. Open source hardware developers gather at events like the Open Hardware Summit and on online forums like the firstname.lastname@example.org mailing list. They've ...
We think open source hardware is a great way to share knowledge and facilitate development of new products. We hope this FAQ helps you understand what it's all about and whether it makes sense for you.
Why make hardware open source?
People have lots of different reasons for open sourcing their hardware. Here are a few.
"We don’t want you to have to ask permission before you hack the way a MeeBlip sounds, or make one to sell to a friend. We want you to just dive in and do it. We want people using MeeBlips to be able to share modifications with each other. We think that’ll make the MeeBlip better – better-sounding, more useful, more crazy. We hope you’ll include MeeBlip sounds in other projects, or learn from it in your own work." --Peter Kirn and/or James Grahame of MeeBlip
"Let us stand on each other’s shoulders, not each other’s toes." --Tiny BASIC developer Dennis Allison, 1975
Open-source hardware means sharing the files needed to build *and* modify your hardware. As the open-source hardware definition explains, that means the version of the files that you would prefer for making changes to the design, not an intermediate or obfuscated version. For mechanical stuff, this means the original CAD files. For circuit boards, it's the original schematic and board layout files.
Unfortunately, the original design files for hardware are often in proprietary formats for expensive software tools. In this case, it's helpful and encouraged to also offer versions of the design in alternative or intermediate formats that can be viewed or edited with common or free programs. For example, PDFs of circuit schematics, Gerbers for circuit board layouts, and IGES or STL files for mechanical objects. These allow people without access to expensive or proprietary software to make at least some use of your design. Please note, however, that this is not a substitute for releasing the original files - the core of open-source hardware practice.
What are other best practices for open source hardware?
1. Make it clear how your hardware is licensed by providing a copy of, or at least a web link to, the license with the hardware.
2. Be clear about what parts of the hardware are open-source (and which aren't).
3. Put the OSHW logo on your hardware. You can find lots of different versions at oshwlogo.com.
4. Keep your source files in a (free) publicly-available source code repository like Github. This makes it easier for people to track their changes to your files. It also makes it easier for them to send improvements back to you. The tools for this kind of data exchange are still pretty weak for hardware projects, but for software, they're mature.
Won't people rip me off?
Maybe (and open-source hardware definitely isn't for everyone). Our experience, however, has shown that it's possible for open-source hardware to be commercially successful despite its openness. There are many reasons for this.
For one thing, even with access to a product's design, it's not trivial for someone else to make and sell it. They need to source components, manufacture and assemble parts, test for quality, establish distribution channels, and more. If you're already offering the product at a fair price, there's not much incentive for someone to bother, especially if it's not clear that there's a market for the product. If you've already established a market, then you're probably also growing a community around your product - a community that's likely to support you (the original designer and maker of the product) rather than buying clones from an unknown competitor. Further, if someone really wanted to rip you off, they could probably reverse engineer and replicate your product even if you didn't open-source it - and you wouldn't have the goodwill or support that comes from open-source hardware.
That said, there are strategies for minimizing the potential for someone to undermine your business. Most of them revolve around creating awareness of and trust in you and your products (i.e. the same things you need for any business). Making and selling good products at fair prices will help people feel confident buying from you, even if others offer products based on the same design. Strong branding (e.g. trademarks) can help make it clear which products are made and supported by you - again, even if others are using the same designs. Finally, creating a community around your business will encourage people to buy from you, even if they can get similar products elsewhere.
People will, of course, "rip you off" in the sense that they will use your designs as the basis for more advanced designs. If you don't want that to happen, you probably shouldn't make your hardware open source. Those of us who do build open source hardware want people to build on our designs, or at least think the benefits of the situation are worth the competition.
Why aren't non-commercial restrictions compatible with open source hardware?
There are a few reasons.
If you place a non-commercial restriction on your hardware design, other people don't have the same freedom to use the design in the ways that you can. That means, for example, that if you and someone else both release designs with non-commercial licenses, neither of you can make and sell hardware that builds on both of your designs. Rather than contributing to a commons of hardware designs for everyone to build on, you're limiting others to a very narrow range of possible uses for your design.
In particular, because making hardware invariably involves money, it's very difficult to make use of a hardware design without involving some commercial activity. For example, say a group of friends wanted to get together and order ten copies of a hardware design - something that's often much cheaper than each person ordering their own copy. If one person places the order and the others pay him back for their share, they'd probably be violating a non-commercial restriction. Or say someone wants to charge people to take a workshop in which they make and keep a copy of your hardware design - that's also commercial activity. In general, there are just very few ways for someone to use a hardware design without involving some sort of commercial activity.