What is the source of “open source” hardware?

“Open source hardware is hardware whose design is made publicly available so that anyone can study, modify, distribute, make, and sell the design or hardware based on that design.” (source: Open Source Hardware Association). But what does it mean exactly to “make a design publicly available”? How can I make the difference between a product which is open source and a product which is not?

Most of the debates on this issue focused so far on licensing and forgot that this is not only a question of the license but also of what is licensed. In other words: what is the information that describes a product sufficiently, so it can be studied, modified, distributed and made?

In order to answer this non-trivial question, scholars from the Technical University Berlin analysed the public documentation of 132 complex mechanical open source hardware products. They investigated how open source hardware development projects handled with documentation and tried to identify the best practices out of it. The result: practitioners tend to interpret the concept of “open source” in a large variety of ways. This ranges from obvious misuse (what we could call “openwashing” to the provision of very detailed and demanding documents including CAD models, assembly instructions, bills of materials, as well as guidance for newcomers. They also identified two main motivations behind the publication of product-related documentation: to support a community-based product development process and to speed up the dissemination of a privately developed innovation.

Practical results from this study are:

  • A practical guide summarising the best practices of documenting open source hardware. (PDF) The document itself is open source and an editable version is available in markdown format in GitHub. Any participation to its further development is welcomed.
  • The open-O-meter, a simple scale rating the openness of a product from 0 to 8. Depending on which documents are publicly shared, such as CAD files or bills of materials, a product gets more or less points. When a product gets 8 points, congratulations, it complies with best available practices! When it gets zero points, well, it sounds like openwashing. If a product gets between 1 and 7, then it’s a good start!
  • curated directory of complex open source hardware products indexes existing open
    source hardware products and providing direct links to their “source code”, that is, to the 3D models of the mechanical parts, to the schematics of the electronic parts and to the firmware embedded in those. It also rates the “openness” of the indexed products according to the open-o-meter. There are to date more than 200 products indexed in the database. The database is open access and any participation to is welcomed as well.

Link to the original published research in the Journal of Open Hardware: https://openhardware.metajnl.com/articles/10.5334/joh.7/

Image credits:

Top: “RepRap workshop in Gdańsk, Poland” by Maciej Wojnicki, licensed under CC-BY 2.0
Middle left: “RepRapPro_Ormerod_Bild10” by Creative Tools, licensed under CC-BY 2.0
Middle right: “RepRapPro_Ormerod_Bild12” by Creative Tools, licensed under CC-BY 2.0

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