Open-source hardware standards formally issued

The nascent industry--led by Arduino, Chumby, MakerBot, Adafruit, and others--has never had a governing definition. Until now.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
6 min read
Open-source hardware companies like Adafruit, Arduino, Chumby, and others have come together to set standards for their nascent industry.

NEW YORK--There are 13 million-dollar open-source hardware companies, but there have been no standards governing what defines the still nascent field.

Until now, that is.

Unlike open-source software, because there have been no formal definitions, many people may not even be aware of the growing industry. But already some of those practicing its general principles have become household names among the geek set: Arduino, the programmable single-board microcontroller and software suite; Chumby, a popular Wi-Fi device; MakerBot, a low-priced 3D printer; and Adafruit, a maker of do-it-yourself hardware kits for things like MP3 players and more.

Late Tuesday, a group of signatories including Wired magazine editor and DIY Drones' Chris Anderson, Phil Torrone of Make magazine, David Mellis of MIT Media Lab and Arduino, Limor Fried of Adafruit, and Ayah Bdeir of New York's Eyebeam publicly issued a formal definition of open-source hardware.

The basic elements of the standards are as follows: documentation; necessary software; derived works; free redistribution; attribution; no discrimination against persons or groups; no discrimination against fields of endeavor; distribution of license; license must not be specific to a product; license must not restrict other hardware or software; and license must be technology-neutral.

That is a definition that might be considered familiar to many who have read much about free-software licensing.

The decision to issue the new standards stemmed from a meeting in March organized by Bdeir and attended by many of the endorsers and participants, as well as a lawyer from Creative Commons.

For years, Torrone has been a friend of mine, and a frequent source of great stories, including the infamous Roomba Frogger, from South by Southwest 2006. And because I was in New York on Road Trip 2010, I got a chance to see the Adafruit labs, where he and a small team of employees work for Fried, who is a longtime hacker hardware maker and culture-jammer, as well as a graduate of the MIT Media Lab and a former Eyebeam fellow.

No clear definition
Prior to the March meeting, there had been many opinions about exactly what open-source hardware is, said Torrone, who argued that most of them were from people who don't actually practice it, at least not according to the newly defined standards.

Yet despite its purely altruistic name, open-source hardware hardly means that the companies in the field aren't making money. Indeed, as noted above, there are already at least 13 companies making more than $1 million a year (see video below) in revenue, and that number seems poised to grow, and grow quickly, particularly if the new standards inspire more to believe that getting into the business is a safe entrepreneurial risk.

And that's despite the fact that one of the more elemental tenets of the field is that those selling products give away their designs, and allow others to make and sell products based on those designs, or even give them away for free.

Open source hardware $1m and beyond - foo camp east 2010 from adafruit industries on Vimeo.

So, Torrone continued, someone could take an Adafruit design and make and sell their own version of the product, and Fried wouldn't get a dime.

But that's not how the industry is going, he continued. Mainly, that's because the companies that are creating the designs--like Adafruit--are also putting a lot of energy into customer service, and to many buyers, that's worth the extra price they often pay.

At the same time, by putting product designs out into the community for free, open-source hardware companies are allowing others to improve upon their work. "Someone could say, hey, you could use a different component here, or save money here," Torrone explained.

Accelerated patent system
In some ways, Torrone argued, the new open-source hardware standards are tantamount to "an accelerated patent system that's instant." By that, he means that while someone may copy another's design, they also have to give full and fair attribution.

And that's important, both because designers should get credit for their work, and because, to many hardware geeks, half the fun of making stuff is showing others.

"There's almost a skateboarding culture, to make an analogy," said Torrone. "People love to show tricks they can do. If you're doing really cool electronics, you want to share the really interesting parts of what you're doing."

The full language of the new standard is as follows:

•  Documentation
The hardware must be released with documentation including design files, and must allow modification and distribution of the design files. Where documentation is not furnished with the physical product, there must be a well-publicized means of obtaining this documentation for no more than a reasonable reproduction cost preferably, downloading via the Internet without charge. The documentation must include design files in the preferred form for which a hardware developer would modify the design. Deliberately obfuscated design files are not allowed. Intermediate forms analogous to compiled computer code -- such as printer-ready copper artwork from a CAD program -- are not allowed as substitutes.

•  Necessary Software
If the hardware requires software, embedded or otherwise, to operate properly and fulfill its essential functions, then the documentation requirement must also include at least one of the following: The necessary software, released under an OSI-approved open source license, or other sufficient documentation such that it could reasonably be considered straightforward to write open source software that allows the device to operate properly and fulfill its essential functions.

•  Derived Works
The license must allow modifications and derived works, and must allow them to be distributed under the same terms as the license of the original hardware. The license must allow for the manufacture, sale, distribution, and use of products created from the design files or derivatives of the design files.

•  Free redistribution
The license shall not restrict any party from selling or giving away the project documentation as a component of an aggregate distribution containing designs from several different sources. The license shall not require a royalty or other fee for such sale. The license shall not require any royalty or fee related to the sale of derived works.

•  Attribution
The license may require derived works to provide attribution to the original designer when distributing design files, manufactured products, and/or derivatives thereof. The license may also require derived works to carry a different name or version number from the original design.

•  No Discrimination Against Persons or Groups
The license must not discriminate against any person or group of persons.

•  No Discrimination Against Fields of Endeavor
The license must not restrict anyone from making use of the hardware in a specific field of endeavor. For example, it may not restrict the hardware from being used in a business, or from being used in nuclear research.

•  Distribution of License
The rights attached to the hardware must apply to all to whom the product or documentation is redistributed without the need for execution of an additional license by those parties.

•  License Must Not Be Specific to a Product
The rights attached to the hardware must not depend on the hardware being part of a particular larger product. If the hardware is extracted from that product and used or distributed within the terms of the hardware license, all parties to whom the hardware is redistributed should have the same rights as those that are granted in conjunction with the original distribution.

•  License Must Not Restrict Other Hardware or Software
The license must not place restrictions on other hardware or software that may be distributed or used with the licensed hardware. For example, the license must not insist that all other hardware sold at the same time be open source, nor that only open source software be used in conjunction with the hardware.

•  License Must Be Technology-Neutral
No provision of the license may be predicated on any individual technology or style of interface.

For the next few weeks, Geek Gestalt will be on Road Trip 2010. After driving more than 18,000 miles in the Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest and the Southeast over the last four years, I'll be looking for the best in technology, science, military, nature, aviation and more throughout the American northeast. If you have a suggestion for someplace to visit, drop me a line. In the meantime, you can follow my progress on Twitter @GreeterDan and @RoadTrip and find the project on Facebook. And you can also test your knowledge of the U.S. and try to win a prize in the Road Trip Picture of the Day challenge.