Open hardware: How and why it works

Applying open source concepts to physical objects

Open source has been a successful driver in software innovation, but how does it -- or how can it -- apply to hardware? A number of hardware projects are testing open source concepts, from microprocessors to microcontrollers to complete single-board computers. This article discusses licensing, availability, community, and other challenges and successes in making hardware open.


Jeffrey M. Osier-Mixon, Technical Writer, MontaVista Software, Inc.

Author photo - Jeffrey Osier-MixonJeffrey Osier-Mixon is a technical writer, open source advocate, and community manager. He blogs about open source software, runs the Meld embedded Linux community, and speaks at Linux conferences.

02 November 2010

Also available in Portuguese

What is open hardware?

Open source software is one of the biggest success stories in technology and business of the 20th and 21st centuries. The open software movement was founded by Dennis Allison in his release of Tiny BASIC in 1975 with the seminal quote, "Let us stand on each other's shoulders, not each other's toes." Jim Warren, editor-in-chief of Dr. Dobb's Journal, further codified the concept in July 1976, with the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Programming Language: "When software is either free or so inexpensive it's easier to pay for it than to duplicate it, then it won't be stolen." Nine years later, in 1985, Dr. Dobb's Journal published Richard Stallman's original GNU Manifesto, a call to action for free software. And today, the concept of sharing basic designs has spawned some of the most widely adopted software of our time, including the GNU tools and Linux® operating system, and created multi-billion-dollar industries that have attracted traditional proprietary software giants like Sun Microsystems, Novell, and IBM®.

Now the success of open source software is creating a new movement: open hardware. Since the late 1990s, engineers have sought ways to apply open source concepts to computer and electronic hardware. The main stumbling block, of course, is that software is easy to duplicate and can be copied free of charge, while hardware is made up of actual matter — "atoms instead of bits," as Chris Anderson said. Plus, hardware is generally patented rather than copyrighted, and patents are expensive to both obtain and defend. How can hardware be "open sourced" to take advantage of the huge benefits open source has to offer?

Open or open source?

Is it "open hardware" or "open source hardware?" This distinction is still under discussion. The term open source corresponds directly to programmatic source code, which holds true for hardware designs described in languages like Verilog hardware description language (HDL), but not for designs that may be described only in computer-aided design (CAD) drawings.

Open hardware is open in the same sense as open software — the "free as in speech" concept Stallman discussed in his GNU Manifesto. Hardware can never be "free as in beer" because duplication always costs something, and even the best-intentioned advocates can't afford to offer physical products free of charge indefinitely. However, a physical product is simply an implementation of a design, and the designs of hardware, along with permission to create a physical product from those designs, can indeed be made available free of charge with an open license, whether copyrighted or patented. The licensing is up to the owner.

In fact, open hardware itself is still being formally defined. A workgroup of contributors has been honing a definition since 2009, following Bruce Perens' Open Source Definition. The new Open Source Hardware (OSHW) definition is currently at V0.4 and is under discussion in the forum on the Open Hardware Summit web site.

Open hardware projects

There are already many successful open hardware projects. This section describes some of them.

In 2004, IBM created as part of its Power Everywhere initiative, establishing Power Architecture® as an open hardware project with freely licensed standards, designs, and specifications. IBM announced plans in 2006 to make the PowerPC® 405 core available to research and academic institutions free of charge, and today, more than 40 universities participate in the program.


Sun Microsystems followed in 2006 with the OpenSPARC T1, a fully open implementation of its successful SPARC processor. There are now three fully open implementations of the Reduced Instruction Set Computer (RISC)-based SPARC architecture with source code written in Verilog HDL and released under the GNU Public License (GPL).


BeagleBoard is a single-board computer based on Texas Instruments' Open Multimedia Application Platform 3 (OMAP3) system on chip (SoC), which includes an ARM-based microprocessor as well as a digital signal processor. BeagleBoard uses the same processing engine as many smartphones and netbooks, making it powerful enough to run a full Linux distribution and provide high-definition video. BeagleBoard is supported by a large community and its design documents, including architecture drawings of the printed circuit board (PCB) for use in manufacturing, are freely available for download. It has already spawned several related projects.


Arduino is a microcontroller designed with the end user in mind, with an easy-to-learn programming model, a completely open design that can be used by anyone, and a huge ecosystem of documentation, add-on boards, derivative products, and community. It has been largely adopted by the burgeoning "Maker" movement of do-it-yourself hobbyists and crafters, based on O'Reilly Publishing's Make magazine and annual Maker Faire — hardware enthusiasts who want to add flexible electronic features to their projects, from blinking light-emitting diodes (LEDs) to sophisticated aircraft-guidance systems., a venerable open hardware institution since 1999, is a portal for open processor cores that provides the design documents for many cores under a variety of open licenses, including a free RISC computing platform, several microcontrollers, two SoCs, and a number of arithmetic, communication, and other cores, most described using Verilog HDL.

Open electronic designs

Several small companies now manufacture completely open electronic designs. Some create kits or small gadgets, while others create professional-quality products. Manufacturing processes previously open only to corporations are now being opened to smaller organizations.

Free projects

Some projects are completely free and provide only the plans for others to build their projects, and some, like the recent crowd of desktop 3-D printers, even provide the means to self-replicate.

Open hardware licenses

Hardware designs are often patented and copyrighted or simply patented. Patents are similar to copyrights in concept, as both are government-provided protections of inventions, but they differ in scope. This article is only a basic primer for this complex subject.

Copyrights and patents themselves are legal recognition of ownership guaranteed by the government. The legally recognized owner of an invention has the right to withhold or grant permission for the use of that invention, and that permission is granted through a license. Traditional proprietary hardware companies contractually license their patented designs to others — for example, Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD) creates microprocessors based on a license granted from Intel.

Copyright protects the form of expression, rather than the subject of the item protected. It is possible to copyright the design of an invention, such as the documents that describe a microprocessor, but not the physical processor itself. Copyrights are automatically granted to creators as soon as their creations are set down in permanent form. In the United States, copyrights can also be formalized for a small fee in the U.S. Copyright Office.

Patent holders, on the other hand, are granted "the right to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale or selling" an invention. Patents are by definition exclusive and therefore prevent the kind of sharing that open hardware (and open software) promotes. However, many inventors choose to patent their designs to provide protection from direct reverse-engineering, which is possible with hardware. Patents are expensive to obtain in the United States because they must be researched by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and they are also expensive to defend in court.

A large set of open licenses are available to hardware creators. However, most of them, such as the Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), GPL, and Creative Commons licenses, are designed specifically around copyrights.

Creative Commons recently instituted an effort to create "zones of freedom" around patents to enable patent holders to open their hardware designs to others. By sharing designs in this way, individuals and corporations can work together on portions of their hardware projects while differentiating themselves from competition at other levels.

Trip report: Open Hardware Summit 2010

The Open Hardware Summit convened at the New York Hall of Science in September 2010, with a full day of talks from key open hardware luminaries, legal experts, and educators. In true open source fashion, the summit was organized by a decentralized group of contributors from several companies, in particular Alicia Gibb from Bug Labs and Ayah Bdeir from littleBits. This brief sampling describes some of the presentations, all of which are available (with open licenses) in both audio and video, and there were several excellent presentations that are not reviewed here. Visit the Open Hardware Summit web site to learn more (see Resources).

Why do open hardware?

The first set of talks focused on the reasons behind engineers choosing to open their hardware designs. Limor Fried from Adafruit eloquently described her experience of starting an open hardware design company, despite — or even because of — having one of her designs stolen. She redefined success with "being obscure is worse than being ubiquitous" and identified three solid reasons for making hardware open:

  • To join a community of like-minded people, both peers and those to whom we can aspire
  • To create something meaningful rather than ephemeral: "what we make will outlast us"
  • Possibly most important, to be a better engineer

Fried said, "When I am designing something just for myself, I'm going to take shortcuts [and essentially] not take the same care as when 10,000 people are going to be looking at it, critiquing it, asking questions about it and trying to build it." In essence, she said, by making hardware (or anything) open, you get back more than you give.

Also in this block of presentations, Gerald Coley from Texas Instruments outlined the BeagleBoard project, discussing the need for different hardware "engines" to drive different tasks. Bruce Perens, co-founder of the Open Source Initiative, discussed some of the hurdles open hardware faces, similar to those the early free-software movement faced. John Wilbanks, vice president for Science at Creative Commons, went into great detail about patent and copyright protection and what Creative Commons is doing to help innovators both protect themselves and open their designs, particularly with respect to patents.


The business panel, moderated by MIT Professor of Technological Innovation, Eric von Hippel, featured Chris Anderson, DIYdrones/Wired; Peter Semmelhack, Bug Labs; David Carrier, Parallax; Phil Torrone, Adafruit/Make; Massimo Banzi, Arduino creator; and Bunnie Huang, Chumby co-creator. Von Hippel began with the statistic that there are more than 2.9 million "do-it-yourselfers" in the United Kingdom according to his research, or 6.2 percent of the population, who collectively outspend all industrial R&D in the United Kingdom by a factor of 2.3. The discussion showed that each of the panelists as business leaders had come to similar conclusions about open hardware and the role it holds for future business, which is similar to the impact of open source software. Designs are being slowly forced into openness by the marketplace, which has positive reverberations throughout the industry for innovation and sharing.


One issue that appears when taking hardware design from industry to community is the issue of productization, turning a project into a product and, subsequently, into a business. Dale Dougherty, an editor at O'Reilly Publishing, moderated an open-design productization panel made up of Eric Pan, Seeed Studio; Matt Peddicord, Bug Labs; Clint Cooley, CircuitCo; Nathan Seidle, Sparkfun; Paulo Blikstein, Stanford University professor who developed the GoGoBoard; and Taylor Hokanson, DIYLILCNC.

Turning an open project into a commercial product is an involved process, but it is essentially the same process that corporations endure when they productize an internal project. The main issue discussed in the panel was manufacturing, which normally requires a large number of units before it becomes economically viable. This is usually beyond the reach of hobbyists, do-it-yourselfers, and others who typically produce open hardware. However, a number of manufacturers are now able to work with small numbers. For example, panelist Clint Cooley at CircuitCo said he "is now able to produce electronic components in quantities as small as one." Other industries, particularly in artistic formats such as T-shirts, have developed methods for manufacturing in small units as well. In general, manufacturing industries are becoming more accessible to those producing open hardware.


The law panel discussed establishing norms and emphasized end-user control over the products they purchase as a driving factor for open hardware. Moderated by David Mellis, lead software developer for the Arduino project and a graduate student at the MIT Media Lab, the panel consisted of Windell Oskay, Evil Mad Scientist proprietor and an author of the Open Hardware Definition draft; Wendy Seltzer, law professor with a luminous history in open source; Matt Stack of Liquidware, entrepreneur; Michael Weinberg, staff attorney at; Peter Brown, controller and executive director of the Freedom Software Foundation; and Xavier Carcelle of the Open Hardware and Design Alliance (OHANDA). Wendy Seltzer summed up the legal perspective well: "Don't restrict freedom in the name of preserving it."

Figure 1. Open Hardware Summit Panel
Image showing the Open Hardware Summit Panel

Where to learn more

Open source development is a participatory activity. The best way to learn about open hardware is to join the discussions in such communities as the Open Hardware Summit web site, and the forums and wikis for the hundreds of open projects out there.

One of the great benefits of open hardware is the potential to "develop the unexpected," as Peter Brown said, by using parts and products in ways never envisioned by their original creators. This is the manifestation of Dennis Allison's 1975 vision of "standing on each other's shoulders." Jim Warren pointed out 35 years ago that it is not possible to steal something free, but, as open source has proven, it is eminently possible to use something free to create something better and then freely pass that benefit on to others.

That is what the open source movement is about: using the power of collaboration to accelerate innovation.



  • Creative Commons provides free licenses for those who wish to open their inventions to others.
  • Limor Fried's description of open hardware is an excellent primer on open hardware issues.
  • The OpenCores Project has provided a gathering point for open hardware projects since the late 1990s.
  • is the IBM-sponsored portal whose goal is to develop open standards and business practices to promote the Power Architecture.
  • "Boot Linux on the BeagleBoard" shows how to boot open source software (Linux) on open hardware.
  • The Open Source Way is a wiki, book, and (soon) textbook with community-created content dedicated to defining how things are done in the open world and to promoting the open source way in new realms, such as education, government, and business.
  • To listen to interesting interviews and discussions for software developers, check out developerWorks podcasts.
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  • Visit the developerWorks Open source zone for extensive how-to information, tools, and project updates to help you develop with open source technologies and use them with IBM's products, as well as our most popular articles and tutorials.
  • The My developerWorks community is an example of a successful general community that covers a wide variety of topics.
  • Watch and learn about IBM and open source technologies and product functions with the no-cost developerWorks On demand demos.

Get products and technologies


  • The Open Hardware Summit is a portal to information about the summit, as well as discussion forums related to open hardware.
  • Participate in developerWorks blogs and get involved in the developerWorks community.


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