Saturday, October 2, 2010

Open Source Hardware Summit Debrief

A week ago I went down to NYC and spent a few hours at the Open Source Hardware Summit. I sat on a panel and discussed with a number of pretty smart individuals, the merits of Open Source legal constructs and what Open Source Hardware is and isn't. A big, heart-felt thank you from me goes out to the organizers, sponsors, and creators of the summit.

Of course, there were so many more thoughts running through my mind than I could possibly share with the group, and I didn't want to monopolize the speaking time, so I took lots of notes. Here are a few of the notes I jotted down:

-What is the relationship between open source rights and intellectual property protection provided by the government?

-Is an open source design patentable? Is it copyrightable? Is it trademarkable?

-Open source hardware designs are getting licensed to hardware builders for rates around 5-10%, yet patented technologies have concepts like compulsory rates of 3%. Does that mean that patented designs might actually be cheaper than open source?

-Does an open source design have to be recursive and/or fractal? Can you have an open source design that uses proprietary integrated circuit chips? Can you use an open source circuit in a proprietary, closed device?

-Many of the successful open source hardware projects have in common that they rigorously protect one aspect of their business: arduino gives away the board but keeps the brand and trademark, beagleboard gives away the design by keeps the chip gate array design, bug labs gives away the schematics but restricts the inter-module snap-connect interface, liquidware gives away the hardware at cost, but keeps the analytical algorithms (e.g. you can buy a "military grade" IXM, but you can't get the code that turns it into a --CLASSIFIED--) Exactly :-)

-What do you use to base an open source hardware license on? Does it start from a contract that restricts freedom to operate, and use, or does it look more like wills and testament document, where it gives away rights and freedoms?

-Is the goal of open source to provide freedoms? If so, why does it need a license or contract to restrict rights?

-What is the relationship between the drivers and motivators of hackers, and the objective of a license? Could you have had open source software without the GNU?

-What came first: the license, or open source code?

-What is the "source" part of open source hardware? Does hardware have a standard "source" (no)? How long will it take to get there (a long time)?

All in all, I think - as always - I'm left with many more questions than answers, but I think that's the point. I don't really know why I do open source hardware, I don't even have to know what it is. But somehow, it feels good to make and produce open electronics, open source code examples that control those electronics, and devices that are in general far more accessible and hackable than previous generations of hardware.

So I'll keep doing "open source hardware" even though I have no idea what it means, whether the term carries any substance, because... it just feels right!


Anonymous said...

I love the questions. It made me ask myself "What do I want from open source software?" Many things, but mainly, to be free of vendor lock-in. If my car breaks, I can take it to any mechanic. If I had to take it back to the manufacturer then where would I take it if the manufacturer ceased to do business? I would be forced to buy a new car and that sucks. Software doesn't break in the same way but I still want to be free to change it to suit my changing needs. Then I asked myself "What do I want from open source hardware?". The same: to be free of vendor lock-in. When I buy filters for my vacuum cleaner, I want to buy from an open market. For that, all the information required to manufacture those filters needs to be freely available: Dimensions, materials, details of suppliers and of contacts at those suppliers. I want detailed easy-to-understand instructions on how to disassemble, service and re-assemble my vacuum cleaner. Instructions that were written by the people who knows exactly how it should be done properly: the people who created it.

What do you want?

Matt said...

That's a really insightful way to think it through. I think what I'm looking for is people to hack with. I like hacking stuff by myself, but it's more fun with others. I like tearing down and remixing hardware in new ways that are unexpected, and I like to idea of being able to draw arbitrary lines through a pre-conceived piece of electronic hardware that someone else designed, and that I bought, and turn it into something else...

I also like the hacker spirit. It's about challenging the mainstream view, and sometimes about playful competition amongst hackers for who can push the limits and boundaries further. And when someone else has done something creative, I like to examine it, reverse engineer the approach, and add that to my "library" so to speak.

So I suppose one vision for open source hardware is the social creation of this library of hardware hacks. Software libraries are relatively easy to create... I want to build the same thing for hardware.

marvelouspersona said...

I'm afraid you've got the BUG Labs bit wrong:

"bug labs gives away the schematics but restricts the inter-module snap-connect interface"

We at BUG open everything we have the ability to open, including our custom-designed BMI interface: