Open Source Hardware is a piece of hardware that is manufactured according to the free blueprints. The movement and idea are close to or goes back to the Free Software, Open Source and DIY movement. Even if “open source hardware” often has a lot in common with open source software, “open hardware” can also take place far away from software technology: For example, the project “Open Source Car” tries to develop free blueprints for a car, i.e. a freely available “recipe” for DIY-ing. Even further with Thingiverse, where objects are to be made available as 3D printable CAD files. The project “Solar” tries to spread cheap self-construction solar systems in developing countries, also to enable cooking and heating without firewood.
The projects Libreboot and coreboot to replace proprietary BIOSes are sometimes also assigned to the free hardware since the BIOS was assigned to the hardware from a historical perspective. While in the early days of computers the BIOS was completely stored in an OTPROM and thus inseparably anchored in the hardware, this is now, analogous to any other software, completely interchangeable. As one of the first computers in series production, the non-profit project $100 laptop wants to equip all its computers with coreboot. Sun Microsystems surprisingly disclosed the design of its well-known SPARC processor architecture under the name OpenSPARC and made it available to the general public under the GNU General Public License. Under the name “Open Compute Project”, Facebook has released both the architecture of its servers and a data centre.
From the field of textile processing comes the AYAB project, which provides the common knitting machines Brother KH-9xx with a modern and open Arduino-based control.
In addition to the above-mentioned contributions on traceability, consumer protection and the circular economy, various studies point to significant cost savings through open-source hardware. In the areas of microcontroller developer boards and additive manufacturing, the average cost savings from open hardware compared to proprietary solutions were 94 per cent.
Hardware, unlike software, is often not subject to copyright, open-source hardware licenses are more focused on patent law as a mechanism of action, unlike FOSS licenses, which are based on copyright. Free hardware can be released to different extents depending on the project. Many manufacturers often only share parts of their implementations for users’ projects. For example, only the firmware of the WRT54GL wireless router was (forced) to be placed under GPL by Linksys; of the robot vacuum cleaner Roomba only the programming interface was published. In addition, independent parts of a project can be subject to other licenses. This means that interfaces, software and hardware, for example, can have different licenses.
Open hardware licenses
Known and in use open source hardware licenses are:
- TAPR Open Hardware License
- Balloon Open Hardware License
- Hardware Design Public License
- CERN’s CERN Open Hardware License
- Solderpad License, a variant of the Apache License version 2.0
- ChumbySDK and HDK license.
- BSD license, MIT license, and other permissive FOSS licenses.
Richard Stallman (GNU and FSF) recommends different licenses for free hardware for different use cases.
- For general construction plans, the GNU GPL v3 (or later), the Apache license v2.0, and the CC-0 (a public domain-like license).
- For functional 3D blueprints, the GNU GPL v3 (or later), the Apache license v2.0, and the CC-BY-SA, CC-BY, or CC-0 licenses.
- For decorative designs, the GNU GPL v3 (or later), the Apache v2.0 license, the CC-0, or any other Creative Commons license (including the proprietary ones).