Open-source hardware

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The open hardware logo

Open-source hardware (OSH) consists of physical artifacts of technology designed and offered by the open design movement. Both free and open-source software (FOSS) as well as open-source hardware is created by this open-source culture movement and applies a like concept to a variety of components. It is sometimes, thus, referred to as FOSH (free and open source hardware). The term usually means that information about the hardware is easily discerned so that others can make it - coupling it closely to the maker movement.[1] Hardware design (i.e. mechanical drawings, schematics, bills of material, PCB layout data, HDL source code[2] and integrated circuit layout data), in addition to the software that drives the hardware, are all released under free/libre terms. The original sharer gains feedback and potentially improvements on the design from the FOSH community. There is now significant evidence that such sharing creates enormous economic value[3] and can drive a high return on investment for investors.[4]

Since the rise of reconfigurable programmable logic devices, sharing of logic designs has been a form of open-source hardware. Instead of the schematics, hardware description language (HDL) code is shared. HDL descriptions are commonly used to set up system-on-a-chip systems either in field-programmable gate arrays (FPGA) or directly in application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC) designs. HDL modules, when distributed, are called semiconductor intellectual property cores, or IP cores.

One example of open source hardware is Phonebloks.


The RepRap general-purpose 3D printer with the ability to make copies of most of its own structural parts

Rather than creating a new license, some open-source hardware projects simply use existing, free and open-source software licenses.[5] These licenses may not accord well with patent law.[6]

Additionally, several new licenses have been proposed. These licenses are designed to address issues specific to hardware designs.[7] In these licenses, many of the fundamental principles expressed in open-source software (OSS) licenses have been "ported" to their counterpart hardware projects. Organizations tend to rally around a shared license. For example, Opencores prefers the LGPL or a Modified BSD License,[8] FreeCores insists on the GPL,[9] Open Hardware Foundation promotes "copyleft" or other permissive licenses",[10] the Open Graphics Project uses a variety of licenses, including the MIT license, GPL, and a proprietary license,[11] and the Balloon Project wrote their own license.[12] New hardware licenses are often explained as the "hardware equivalent" of a well-known OSS license, such as the GPL, LGPL, or BSD license.

Despite superficial similarities to software licenses, most hardware licenses are fundamentally different: by nature, they typically rely more heavily on patent law than on copyright law. Whereas a copyright license may control the distribution of the source code or design documents, a patent license may control the use and manufacturing of the physical device built from the design documents. This distinction is explicitly mentioned in the preamble of the TAPR Open Hardware License:

"... those who benefit from an OHL design may not bring lawsuits claiming that design infringes their patents or other intellectual property."

— TAPR Open Hardware License[13]

Noteworthy licenses include:


The Arduino Diecimila
The OSHW (Open Source Hardware) logo silkscreened on an unpopulated PCB

Extensive discussion has taken place on ways to make open-source hardware as accessible as open-source software. Discussions focus on multiple areas,[18] such as the level at which open-source hardware is defined,[19] ways to collaborate in hardware development, as well as a model for sustainable development by making open-source appropriate technology.[20][21] In addition there has been considerable work to produce open-source hardware for scientific hardware using a combination of open-source electronics and 3-D printing.[22][23]

One of the major differences between developing open-source software and developing open-source hardware is that hardware results in tangible outputs, which cost money to prototype and manufacture. As a result, the phrase "free as in speech, not as in beer",[24] more formally known as Gratis versus Libre, distinguishes between the idea of zero cost and the freedom to use and modify information. While open-source hardware faces challenges in minimizing cost and reducing financial risks for individual project developers, some community members have proposed models to address these needs.[25] Given this, there are initiatives to develop sustainable community funding mechanisms, such as the Open Source Hardware Central Bank.[26]

Often vendors of chips and other electronic components will sponsor contests with the provison that the participants and winners must share their designs. Circuit Cellar magazine organizes some of these contests.

Open-source labs and certifications[edit]

A guide has been published[citation needed] on using open-source electronics and 3D printing to make open-source labs. Today scientists are creating many such labs, examples include:

RYF certification[edit]

See also: Linux-libre

The Free Software Foundation "Respects Your Freedom" (RYF) computer hardware product certification program encourages the creation and sale of hardware that respects users' freedom and privacy, and aims to ensure that users have control over their devices.[28][29]

Business models[edit]

Open hardware companies are experimenting with different business models. In one example, littleBits implements open-source business models by making the design files available for the circuit designs in each littleBits module, in accordance with the CERN Open Hardware License Version 1.2.[30] In another example, Arduino has registered its name as a trademark. Others may manufacture their designs but can't put the Arduino name on them. Thus they can distinguish their products from others by appellation.[31] There are many applicable business models for implementing some open-source hardware even in traditional firms. For example, to accelerate development and technical innovation the photovoltaic industry has experimented with partnerships, franchises, secondary supplier and completely open-source models.[32]

Reception and impact[edit]

Richard Stallman, the founder of the Free Software movement, was in 1999 skeptical on the idea and relevance of Free hardware (his terminology what is now know as open-source hardware).[33] In a 2015 Wired article he adapted his point of view slightly; while he still sees no ethical parallel between free software and free hardware, he acknowledges the importance.[34]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Alicia Gibb (Ed.) Building Open Source Hardware: DIY Manufacturing for Hackers and Makers, Addison-Wesley: New York, pp. 253-277 (2015).
  2. ^ "Free Hardware and Free Hardware Designs". Free Software Foundation Inc. 
  3. ^ Pearce, J.M. (2015) Quantifying the Value of Open Source Hardware Development. Modern Economy, 6, 1-11. doi: 10.4236/me.2015.61001.
  4. ^ Joshua M. Pearce. (2015) Return on Investment for Open Source Hardware Development. Science and Public Policy. DOI :10.1093/scipol/scv034 open access
  5. ^ From OpenCollector's "License Zone": GPL used by Free Model Foundry and OpenSPARC; other licenses are used by Free-IP Project, LART (the software is released under the terms of the GNU General Public License (GPL), and the Hardware design is released under the MIT License), GNUBook (defunct).
  6. ^ Thompson, C. (2011). Build it. Share it. Profit. Can open source hardware work?. Work, 10, 08.
  7. ^ For a nearly comprehensive list of licenses, see OpenCollector's "license zone"
  8. ^ Item "What license is used for OpenCores?", from FAQ, retrieved 14 January 2013
  9. ^ FreeCores Main Page, retrieved 25 November 2008
  10. ^ Open Hardware Foundation, main page, retrieved 25 November 2008
  11. ^ See "Are we going to get the 'source' for what is on the FPGA also?" in the Open Graphics Project FAQ, retrieved 25 November 2008
  12. ^ Balloon License, from
  13. ^ "The TAPR Open Hardware License". Retrieved 16 April 2015. 
  14. ^ transcript of all comments, hosted on
  15. ^ "CERN Open Hardware Licence". Open Hardware Repository. CERN. 2012-07-05. Retrieved 2012-08-15. 
  16. ^ "Open Hardware Repository". Retrieved 16 April 2015. 
  17. ^ "Solderpad licenses". Retrieved 2012-08-15. 
  18. ^ Writings on Open Source Hardware
  19. ^ MAKE: Blog: Open source hardware, what is it? Here's a start... April 2007
  20. ^ Halfbakery: Open Source Hardware Initiative
  21. ^ 3-D Printing of Open Source Appropriate Technologies for Self-Directed Sustainable Development J. M Pearce, C. Morris Blair, K. J. Laciak, R. Andrews, A. Nosrat and I. Zelenika-Zovko, Journal of Sustainable Development, pp. 17-29 (2010)
  22. ^ Pearce, Joshua M. 2012. "Building Research Equipment with Free, Open-Source Hardware." Science 337 (6100): 1303– access
  23. ^ Joshua M. Pearce,Open-Source Lab:How to Build Your Own Hardware and Reduce Research Costs, Elsevier, 2014. ISBN 9780124104624
  24. ^ "Free, as in Beer", by Lawrence Lessig, on Wired
  25. ^ bmfosh-1.0, Business Models for Open Source Hardware Design
  26. ^ Open Source Hardware Central Bank, from "Make: Online : The Open Source Hardware Bank, retrieved 26 April 2010
  27. ^ Joshua Pearce. "Pearce Research Group - Current Projects". Retrieved 16 April 2015. 
  28. ^ "Respects Your Freedom hardware product certification". 
  29. ^ The Free Software Foundation loves this laptop, but you won't on PC World by Chris Hoffman (on Feb 5, 2015)
  30. ^ Saddlemire, Katie (14 April 2015). "What does "Open Source" mean?". littleBits (littleBits). Retrieved 26 May 2015. 
  31. ^ "Build It. Share It. Profit. Can Open Source Hardware Work?". WIRED. Retrieved 16 April 2015. 
  32. ^ A. J. Buitenhuis and J. M. Pearce, "Open-Source Development of Solar Photovoltaic Technology", Energy for Sustainable Development, 16, pp. 379-388 (2012). open access
  33. ^ Stallman, Richard (1999-06-22). "Richard Stallman -- On "Free Hardware"". Retrieved 2016-01-14. “freedom to copy software is social imperative, but freedom to copy hardware is not so important as hardware is hard to copy” 
  34. ^ Richard Stallman (2015-03-11). "Why We Need Free Digital Hardware Designs". Wired. Retrieved 2016-01-14. 

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