Do agencies have a place for open-source hardware?

Open-source software has long since become a key part of government IT programs. One day, open-source hardware might join it in importance.

Part of the larger open-source culture, open-source hardware often refers to components such as electronics items where the structure and components can be easily understood and copied. More important, developers around the world can share and modify electronic files containing the designs and specifications for OSHW.

A panel of experts discussed the future of OSHW on April 20 at an event in the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, D.C. There is a growing global market for OSHW, said Andrew “Bunnie” Huang, owner of Bunnie Studios LLC. At the moment, however, the market is mostly made up of makers, or small manufacturers and hobbyists, he said.

Many OSHW products are electronics or items that can be manufactured on three-dimensional printers. NASA has heavily committed to developing and promoting open-source software for many years, said Michael Weinberg, a senior staff attorney and innovation evangelist with Public Knowledge, an advocacy organization for open and accessible technology.

He said some federal agencies, including NASA, could benefit from being able to manufacture and develop their own OSHW components and equipment.

Any object that has a design file will trade well in the OSHW world, said Nathan Seidle, CEO of Sparkfun Electronics. But although a wide variety of goods and components such as circuit boards can be shared, some areas, such as health and safety related equipment, probably won’t be open source, he said.

Some examples of open-source hardware include programmable logic devices, an electric guitar kit and even an open-source 3-D printer.

Even in the open-source world, not everything is shared, Weinberg said. Usually, anything that is not a benefit to end users is not included in OSHW hardware. This is because in open-source there is a need to create feedback and dialogue between the maker and the user, Huang added.

Beyond the conversation with users, which can involve technical and developmental aspects, there are areas that developers don’t focus on, such as design and business considerations, because they do not benefit the user, he said.

Unlike the open-source software community, there are still a number of legal and copyright issues affecting the OSHW community. The potential for OSHW has a number of ramifications, said Ayah Bdeir, founder and lead engineer of littleBits. She added that open-source methods might be the only way the United States can regain its industrial base.

OSHW development and sharing are also global issues. “Whether American or not, we have to help each other do this,” she said.

Copyright issues are another concern for the OSHW community, Seidle said, adding that it is often more of a hindrance than a benefit. “Every day that I worry about somebody copying my design is another day that I’m not working on the next big thing,” he said.

Large industrial and technology firms will be challenged as small open-source businesses begin entering the market in force, Huang said. But to play with the big boys, smaller companies need to budget money for lawyers and insurance to protect themselves from lawsuits, he said.

The nature of open-source developments also creates challenges for licensing. Many OSHW companies use Creative Commons licenses, which gives their hardware the same legal protections as open-source software, Weinberg said.

In the hardware world, the industry is still determining what the goals and needs will be for legal requirements and protections, Huang said. But whichever process is finally agreed on by the community, it must then be internationalized for OSHW to work globally, he said.

Another related issue is the gray area where open standards meet closed, or copyrighted standards, such as the connectors for iPhones. In design circles, Huang said, there is a “lot of looking away” around these and other copyright issues. However, he added that there needs to be some legislation or policy to cover these issues.


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