Understanding Open Source Hardware

Here at FOSSlife, we talk a lot about free and open source software, but the concept of open source hardware also merits consideration. In this resource article, we’ll cover the defining principles and characteristics of open source hardware and provide information to help you learn more.

What Is Open Source Hardware?

Open source hardware is “a set of design principles and legal practices, not a specific type of object,” says Opensource.com. Thus, although the term is often associated with electronics, it can apply to other objects as well, including boats, houses, industrial machines, and medical devices.

The main principles defining open source hardware are similar to those of open source software. The Open Source Hardware (OSHW) Definition 1.0 is in fact “based on the Open Source Definition for Open Source Software, which was created by Bruce Perens and the Debian developers as the Debian Free Software Guidelines.”

According to the Open Source Hardware Association (OSHWA), the term applies to “tangible artifacts—machines, devices, or other physical things—whose design has been released to the public in such a way that anyone can make, modify, distribute, and use those things.” As Opensource.com says:

All open hardware must be accompanied by documentation, including design files and source code. In addition, the license governing the reproduction of open hardware must allow modification and distribution of those design files in a way that allows others to easily obtain them. This makes possible—and even encourages—studying, troubleshooting, modifying, and improving open hardware.

Guidelines and Certification

OSHWA, which acts as a certification body for open source hardware, offers a wealth of resources to help educate the community, explain requirements, and “encourage research that is accessible, collaborative and respects user freedom.” They host the annual Open Hardware Summit and maintain the OSHWA Certification as a way to show that products meet “a uniform and well-defined standard for open source compliance.”

According to OSHWA, open source hardware projects consist of the following four main elements:

  • Hardware—the physical functional components/elements of the product (i.e., the product itself) (required)
  • Software—any code, firmware, or software involved in product’s function
  • Documentation—design files, schematics, instructions, etc. (required)
  • Branding—brand names, product names, logos, and product designs (optional, but recommended)

In outlining the certification process, OSHWA also provides guidance in regard to licensing, saying “OSHWA-certified hardware must be distributed with an open source license. The terms of this license give downstream users the permission and information they need to make, use, remix, and build upon your work while abiding by your wishes.” OSHWA recommends the following licenses for hardware:

  • CERN
  • Solderpad
  • TAPR

Recently, OSHWA also released an API for their certification program to make it easier to research and explore currently certified hardware as well as apply for certification directly.

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