In This Issue
Fall Bridge on Open Source Hardware
September 15, 2017 Volume 47 Issue 3
The articles in this issue look at how the development and use of free and open source hardware (FOSH or simply “open hardware”) are changing the face of science, engineering, business, and law.

Hardware: The Next Step toward Open Source Everything

Monday, September 18, 2017

Author: Alicia M. Gibb

Hardware is considered anything made of atoms instead of bits. Open source hardware (OSHW) is hardware of any type (e.g., electronics, mechanical parts, even clothing) whose source files are publicly available for anyone to use, remanufacture, redesign, and resell provided that the hardware remains open source and attribution is given.[1]


Open source hardware involves sharing, transparency, and the acceptance of predecessors and successors to a creator’s work, whether a company that might build something from the hardware or a project that might copy part or all of a hardware design.

Transparency in hardware is increasingly important as technologies become more sophisticated: as complexities are added, the particulars of the design are harder to discern. Open source hardware makes the source files readily accessible to anyone who wants to build the object. The files may include schematics, diagrams, code, and assembly instructions, depending on the type of hardware. A gear logo, shown in figure 1, may be applied to the hardware as long as the communal definition of OSHW (cited above) is followed and the source files are publicly posted without restriction. The gear logo is communally owned and not trademarked, making it very open but difficult to defend if used incorrectly.

Figure 1 

If the open source hardware definition sounds familiar, OSHW took many cues from open source software, although there are important differences. With hardware, sharing the source does not mean you get the product, although the 3D printing community is making strides to change this.

Software can generally be 100 percent open, but such openness is difficult with hardware because the creator may not have built all the parts used on the project or product. For example, on many OSHW devices the integrated circuit (IC) is not open source. But as long as a datasheet exists openly without a nondisclosure agreement and the OSHW designer does not control the intellectual property (IP) of the chip, the hardware can still be considered open source. Invention of desktop chip fabricators would give the IC market a push toward open source, similar to the way desktop 3D printers led to open source 3D printers and prints.

Open source hardware inventors often don’t know the source of the raw materials used to build their components and printed circuit boards. Thus far, the OSHW community does not find the atomic layer of the source useful and is not required to post it.

Hardware and Intellectual Property Protection

Innovation currently has four IP options: trade secrets, patents, public domain, and open source hardware.

  • With a trade secret, inventors keep their ideas under lock and key but do not get any protections if their secrets are published.
  • Patents, which disclose how an invention works, must be publicly filed with a country’s patent and trademark office. In exchange, a monopoly is granted for 20 years (USPTO 2015, chap. 2700).
  • Public domain is truly open, with no restrictions and free for public use.
  • Open source hardware lies between patents and public domain.

When patents were first created, they were meant to incentivize inventors (Newman 2013). But although they are a well-established tradition in the United States (more than 200 years; USPTO 2002), many people in the OSHW movement want a new option. They argue that the original design and incentives of the patent system no longer correlate with the contemporary patent system and in fact hurt innovation rather than promote it (Boldrin and Levine 2013; Gold et al. 2010).

But the patent application process has become a behemoth of litigation, paperwork, and high price points. For many small businesses the cost of applying for a patent is too high, and the cost of defending one is well out of reach. In addition, the paperwork to get a patent and the time it takes to get one hinder innovation—the process is too time consuming and the patent is out of date by the time it’s awarded.

The patent system has also been criticized for its loose definition of “unique.” As lawyer Tom Ewing pointed out in an interview on This American Life, “It took 121 years for us to get the first 1 million patents. Now it takes more or less six years to get another million patents” (Glass et al. 2013). Have humans really become 10 times more innovative since the last century, or has the patent system changed its standards?

Parallels are often drawn between the Industrial Revolution and the Internet Age, with both viewed as eras when inventors focused on shortening time and geographical distances. But it can be argued that there was more dramatic innovation during the Industrial Revolution than in the Internet Age (Gordon 2017). The USPTO awards many patents for things that aren’t unique, making it difficult to measure innovation by the number of patents awarded.

The rise of OSHW occurred partially in response to frustrations with the current patent system. Today’s inventors are looking for other incentives; some find motivation enough for sharing their hardware in the knowledge that they’ll receive attribution. Just as sharing and personalization have taken a front seat on social media platforms, there is interest in extending the capacity for hardware entrepreneurship to reap the benefits of sharing by allowing for personalization (von Hippel 2006).

Benefits to Open Source Hardware

Open source products benefit from community collaboration, allowing for more refined iterative products and processes. Designers get the benefit of standing on the shoulders of those who came before without the fear of litigation when they borrow for OSHW. Businesses that follow open source principles are more likely to succeed because they have to listen to their customers to survive and compete instantly in the marketplace by responding to consumer interests (e.g., color, features, cost).

Entrepreneurs have many reasons to choose OSHW over patenting an innovation:

  • If organizational support for a product or project disappears (e.g., a company goes out of business), the design files can still be used and produced by others, so the product can live on and continue to evolve.
  • Open hardware makes the design easier to scrutinize, which generates feedback and helps make the hardware more robust and better engineered.
  • Widespread review by an active and growing community makes it easy for new users to find troubleshooting advice.
  • OSHW lowers barriers to entry while increasing competition for companies to continuously improve the quality and usability of their products.
  • OSHW allows for product personalization, which can change the form and function of a product. For example, it’s arguable that the Arduino team would never have come up with a microcontroller to be sewn into clothing, but Leah Buechley created a specialized type of Arduino by altering both the form and function to create the first sewable microcontroller, the Lilypad (Gibb 2010).

OSHW depends on derivative works (Gibb 2015), which can be altered in many ways or directly copied, as long as they are properly attributed. They may include changes that are not part of the physical piece, such as economic or geographic alterations that bring hardware to a new price point or a new part of the world.[2]

As the founding entrepreneur of an OSHW company, Nathan Seidle (2012) explained in a TEDxBoulder talk that OSHW makes products more innovative and helps his business stay on its toes. He observes that pioneering companies that focus on patents and litigation rather than allocating their funds to continued innovation may become “unfit” for competition and even risk bankruptcy. Conversely, using and building open source hardware yields “millions of dollars of economic value from a relatively simple scientific device being released under open licenses representing orders of magnitude increase in value from conventional proprietary development” (Pearce 2015, p. 1).

The OSHW Community

Industries and Products

First used in conjunction with ham radio, OSHW became popular in the electronics industry in the late 1990s (Mota 2013). It now spans industries and sectors from tractors and automotive design to ecology, disaster relief, and fashion, and involves people who identify with more than 45 job titles, from engineer to journalist (OSHWA 2013).

The first large-scale OSHW success was the Arduino open source electronics platform, produced by a team at Interaction Design Institute Ivrea and now a permanent OSHW feature (Gibb 2015). Its component-level modification, breakout boards, and electronic kits have become standard, and advances in open source tools include laser cutters, CNCs, and 3D printers.

Open source is proving to be a leading attribute of 3D printers, and the companies that design and sell them are excelling and growing faster than their closed counter-parts (Kenny 2015).


Hackerspaces (also called makerspaces) are collectives where people experiment with art, technology, and science, generally using nontraditional methods for innovation and shared space, tools, and knowledge (Mota 2015). Many spaces offer classes and have open hack nights for the public to learn some tricks of many different trades. The maker market (where not all items are open source) is projected to be an $8.4 billion industry by 2020 (Bajarin 2014).

The OSHW movement, similar to the do-it-yourself (DIY) and maker movements, is not a new concept but rather a revitalization of historical methods that were displaced as modern manufacturing came to the fore (Sale 1995). Producing hardware cheaply and efficiently, modern manufacturing created a consumer culture rather than a DIY culture. That change, combined with fear of students getting hurt, led many schools to drop shop classes and other hands-on classroom experiences. In the past 10 years, though, the pendulum has begun to swing back in favor of creating and fixing things as shop classes pop up again and websites offer DIY instruction (Quinton 2013).

These trends promote the growth, both nationally and internationally, of the OSHW community. Data show OSHW projects in 79 countries (OSHWA 2012, 2013)—and this number may be an underestimate because the survey was in English.

The Open Source Hardware Association

In 2012 a newly formed 501(c)3 nonprofit association for OSHW took on the challenge of advocating, educating, and uniting stewardship of the OSHW movement. The Open Source Hardware Association (OSHWA; pronounced ah-shwa) aims to be the voice of the OSHW community, to ensure that technological knowledge is accessible to everyone, and to encourage the collaborative development of technology that serves education, environmental sustainability, and human welfare (

OSHWA hosts and funds the annual Open Hardware Summit, seeks translations for the OSHW definition, and creates international branches. In 2016 it established OSHW certification and led a session at the White House.


OSHWA launched a certification program in October of 2016, in response to a request from both hobbyists and Fortune 500 companies.

Figure 2 

Hardware certification is important because it is difficult to license hardware without a patent. But most OSHW companies and hobbyists do not want to go to the trouble and expense of getting a patent. As a solution, OSHWA produced a trademarked certification, with a logo (figure 2) for companies that wish to apply it. This solution doesn’t protect the hardware or give the user the same protections as a patent, but it allows for some legal recourse if a company uses the trademarked OSHWA logo without adhering to the OSHW definition.

Within six months of the OSHW certification launch, companies and hobbyists in nine countries certified more than 100 projects or products.

Civic Engagement

In June 2016, as executive director of OSHWA, I was honored to lead a session on OSHW innovation for a “Maker to Manufacturer” event hosted by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.[3] Participants suggested the following ways to move open source innovation forward with OSHWA’s help.

The OSHW community needs to better explain the value proposition of OSHW, by, for example, offering educational experiences for policymakers and illustrating the social change and rapid innovation associated with OSHW. It also needs to clarify how licensing technically works with OSHW, although the latter has been partially addressed through the certification program.

At the government level, (1) the OSHW community would like to be part of any process that might impose limits through regulations that affect IP and hardware. (2) The creation of scalable standards and taxonomies for OSHW would be beneficial. (3) Conversations should strategically begin in particular hardware fields best suited to introduce, educate, and advance with OSHW. (4) Tax incentives for OSHW inventors and entrepreneurs to share their source publicly for the good of rapid innovation, forgoing a monopoly, would be helpful. And (5) the USPTO needs to be more aware of open source prior art to help broaden the IP landscape.

From a university perspective, change must happen in tech transfer offices for innovation to move forward. Too often universities have IP constraints stemming from the Bayh-Dole Act, which prohibits follow-on inventions from taxpayer-funded research and can prohibit the inventor from continuing to innovate.

From an industry perspective, researched case -studies on the business of open source would be helpful to companies looking to join the community, together with some education about how risk-averse IP practices such as patents have a trickle-down effect on innovation that can affect entire industries. Companies could benefit from an open toolbox of the first 1,000 common pieces needed for any project or a “simple things” database with the source for building blocks. In some industries sharing test results would be helpful to support the reproducibility of scientific studies.

Looking to the Future

In addition to the suggestions above, the following ideas can move open source hardware forward and make the OSHW movement stronger.[4]

A “Laundry Label” for Hardware

The laundry label concept, proposed by Tom Igoe and Catarina Mota (2013), is a labeling system to identify the specific attributes of each piece of hardware, similar to clothing labels that state the fabric content and provide instructions for washing. (It is also referred to as a nutrition label.)

This label is different from the OSHW logo or OSHW certification logo, both of which simply state that the hardware complies with the OSHW definition. The laundry/nutrition label might contain information such as which pieces and design files are open and which closed, which software includes libraries of the parts, which parts need to be verified again by a standards entity (e.g., the Federal Communications Commission) after alteration, and how to recycle the hardware. For resellers, the label might list the amenities associated with a product, such as whether it has a 3D design file.

Further Protections

The use of prior art allows OSHW to be recognized as open. But the US Patent and Trademark Office (-USPTO) does not always find prior art when reviewing patent applications. One benefit of an OSHW -repository or database is that the USPTO could check it against patent applications for prior art.

OSHWA is the institution best situated to undertake the above-mentioned tasks, and many people are asking it to do just that. Although implementation may take a while, the best way for OSHWA to tackle this is to establish a way to easily identify which projects are open source through the OSHW certification program. One can imagine a future where the USPTO has a poster of the OSHW logo to compare with logos on source files in order to identify valid OSHW.


To continue to spread and improve, open source hardware needs all industries to participate, especially engineering. It is my hope that, next time you’re working on a hardware project, you’ll ask yourself if there is an open source version out there. Check the OSHW certification database ( ) and start looking for the OSHW logo on items.

Together, we can create an open source world.


Thank you to Cameron Fletcher for her diligence and guidance in editing this article. And thank you to the Open Source Hardware Community for existing, rallying around common grounds, and helping to advance the field.


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[1]  As defined by the Open Source Hardware Community (

[2]  Derivatives aren’t just for open source materials. In music, for example, covers and remixes have always proliferated regardless of IP protection, leading to the statement that “everything is a remix” (Ferguson 2012).

[3]  The session took place during the Maker to Manufacturing Stakeholder Engagement portion of the National Week of Making, June 17–23, 2016.

[4]  This section draws from Gibb (2015), pp. 281–282.


About the Author:Alicia Gibb is founder and executive director of the Open Source Hardware Association and director of the ATLAS Blow Things Up Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder.