Friday, 1 October 2010

Open Source Hardware Summit Debrief

A week ago I went down to NYC and spent a few hours at the Open Source Hardware Summit. I sat on a panel and discussed with a number of pretty smart individuals, the merits of Open Source legal constructs and what Open Source Hardware is and isn't. A big, heart-felt thank you from me goes out to the organizers, sponsors, and creators of the summit.

Of course, there were so many more thoughts running through my mind than I could possibly share with the group, and I didn't want to monopolize the speaking time, so I took lots of notes. Here are a few of the notes I jotted down:

-What is the relationship between open source rights and intellectual property protection provided by the government?

-Is an open source design patentable? Is it copyrightable? Is it trademarkable?

-Open source hardware designs are getting licensed to hardware builders for rates around 5-10%, yet patented technologies have concepts like compulsory rates of 3%. Does that mean that patented designs might actually be cheaper than open source?

-Does an open source design have to be recursive and/or fractal? Can you have an open source design that uses proprietary integrated circuit chips? Can you use an open source circuit in a proprietary, closed device?

-Many of the successful open source hardware projects have in common that they rigorously protect one aspect of their business: arduino gives away the board but keeps the brand and trademark, beagleboard gives away the design by keeps the chip gate array design, bug labs gives away the schematics but restricts the inter-module snap-connect interface, liquidware gives away the hardware at cost, but keeps the analytical algorithms (e.g. you can buy a "military grade" IXM, but you can't get the code that turns it into a --CLASSIFIED--) Exactly :-)

-What do you use to base an open source hardware license on? Does it start from a contract that restricts freedom to operate, and use, or does it look more like wills and testament document, where it gives away rights and freedoms?

-Is the goal of open source to provide freedoms? If so, why does it need a license or contract to restrict rights?

-What is the relationship between the drivers and motivators of hackers, and the objective of a license? Could you have had open source software without the GNU?

-What came first: the license, or open source code?

-What is the "source" part of open source hardware? Does hardware have a standard "source" (no)? How long will it take to get there (a long time)?

All in all, I think - as always - I'm left with many more questions than answers, but I think that's the point. I don't really know why I do open source hardware, I don't even have to know what it is. But somehow, it feels good to make and produce open electronics, open source code examples that control those electronics, and devices that are in general far more accessible and hackable than previous generations of hardware.

So I'll keep doing "open source hardware" even though I have no idea what it means, whether the term carries any substance, because... it just feels right!

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