As the open source hardware community grows it has become increasingly common for researchers and reporters to ask us about the history of the movement. However, this is a difficult question to answer since open source hardware’s history is made of many stories, the stories of people, companies and organizations all over the world who, over the last decade or so, chose to work openly and share their knowledge with others. Given the difficulty in identifying and describing all the contributions to the movement, we decided to tackle a smaller task: the history of OSHW-related organizations and definitions.
We are well aware that, in our attempt to describe the main contributions, we may have gotten some things wrong or missed important details, so we’d also like to invite the community to help us not only perfect this draft, but also keep the history alive by adding new organizations and important events as they unfold. For this purpose, we created a google doc to be edited collaboratively.
Open-source hardware was preceded, influenced and shaped by several prominent cases in which important technologies were developed collaboratively and out in the open. Its historical antecedents include the open source and free software movements, from which it derived its principles, the Homebrew Computer Club and hacking traditions, which flourished when early computers were sold in kits or shipped with schematic diagrams, and the ham radio community, from which it inherited a long tradition of amateur engineering and knowledge-sharing practices.
Despite the deep roots of these legacies, open source hardware only became know as such in the last decade. This was mostly due to the rise of the internet, which made sharing hardware designs possible, the commercial success of open source software, which gave it public visibility, and the decrease in cost of production tools, which made it feasible. The following describes the emergence and evolution of a series of organizations and initiatives that, in conjunction with a growing number of projects and businesses, have helped sediment open source hardware.
- The First Programs, Organizations and Definitions
- TAPR OHL
- OSHW Definition, Summit & Logo
- CERN OHL
- Open Hardware vs. Open Source Hardware
The First Programs, Organizations and Definitions
In 1997, Bruce Perens (creator of the Open Source Definition, co-founder of the Open Source Initiative, and a ham radio operator) launched the Open Hardware Certification Program (Perens 1997). The goal of the program was to allow hardware manufacturers to self-certify their products as open. This implied making a set of promises about the availability of documentation for programming the device-driver interface of a specific hardware device. The program was free and in exchange vendors of certified equipment had the right to apply the program’s open hardware logo to their packaging and to state in advertising that their devices were certified. In turn, those who bought certified equipment were assured that a change in operating system or even the demise of the manufacturer would not make it impossible to have new software written for their devices. The Open Hardware Certification Program was one of the first attempts at extending software’s open source practices to hardware and, as part of this effort, Perens trademarked ‘open hardware’ and the domain openhardware.org which he committed to the certification program.
Shortly after the launch of the Open Hardware Certification Program, David Freeman announced the Open Hardware Specification Project (OHSpec), another attempt at licensing hardware components whose interfaces are available publicly and of creating an entirely new computing platform as an alternative to proprietary computing systems (Freeman 1998). Also in 1998, Troy Benjegerdes made public his intention of starting an entrepreneurial venture to apply the principles of open source software to the design and development of hardware (Benjegerdes 1998). On the same year, Reinoud Lamberts launched Open Design Circuits, a website dedicated to collaboratively designing low cost and open design circuits (Lamberts 1998). And between 1998 and 1999, Graham Seaman made several attempts at defining open source hardware (Seaman).
In early 1999, Dr. Sepehr Kiani (a PhD in mechanical engineering from MIT), Dr. Ryan Vallance and Dr. Samir Nayfeh joined efforts to apply the open source philosophy to machine design applications. Together they established the Open Design Foundation (ODF) as a non-profit corporation, and set out to develop an Open Design Definition (Wikipedia).
Despite this initial burst of activity around the nascent concept of open source hardware, most of the initiatives mentioned above faded out within a year or two and only by the mid 2000s would open source hardware again become a hub of activity. This was mostly due to the emergence of several major open source hardware projects and companies, such as OpenCores, RepRap, Arduino, Adafruit and SparkFun. Thus, in 2007, Perens reactivated the openhardware.org website with the following statement:
Surprise! After a long dark period of being used to divert traffic to a bling vendor, OpenHardware.org is back in the control of its founder. The domain was created by me (Bruce Perens) to operate an Open Hardware certification program, while I was associated with SPI(1). At the time Linux was not yet commercially accepted, and thus there wasn’t tremendous demand for such a program. I think only Cyclades registered while I was connected with the program. I passed management of the program to Vincent Renardias to operate as part of SPI. I think Vincent may have allowed the domain to go inactive after that, or passed it to someone else who allowed that to happen. Somehow SPI managed to let the domain expire – I assume not deliberately, but SPI was asleep at the switch for long enough that the domain was on registrar hold for some time and then was allowed to expire. The domain was then picked up by some sort of search engine optimizer / domain squatter and used to provide ersatz traffic (that is traffic intending to get the previous site) to HipHopCapital.com, a bling vendor, for several years.
I used a domain capture service, a little money, and several years of patience to pick up the domain again. It was transferred to the ownership of Perens LLC on September 2, 2007 (US-Pacific time). I feel that I have to take responsibility for making OpenHardware work this time rather than leaving it for others to drop the ball.
The domain will be operated by techp.org (a not-for-profit organization that I operate for Open-Source-related activities) and used to operate an Open Hardware certification program again according to my original goals. I trust it will have more demand now. (Perens 2007)
Four years later, openhardware.org would house an organization by the same name. But the first Open Hardware Foundation came out of the Open Graphics Project (an effort to design, implement, and manufacture a free and open 3D graphics chip set and reference graphics card). Realizing that the initial run of Open Graphics chips would cost approximately $2M to manufacture, Timothy Miller, founder of the Open Graphics Project, decided to create an offshoot company called Traversal Technology Inc. One of Miller’s concerns was how the company would interact with the project’s community and suggested the creation of a organization to safeguard the interests of Open Graphics Project community (McNamara 2007a). Thus, Patrick McNamara founded the Open Hardware Foundation (OHF) in 2007, in partnership with Traversal Technology, with the goal of facilitating the design, development, and production of free and open hardware. Another goal of the OHF was to help fund the production of open graphics products by providing Traversal a known number of sales. Traversal benefited by having less financial risk associated with producing the graphics chip and the open source community benefited by having hardware available at reduced or no cost for developers who could contribute further to the project (McNamara 2007a). But in 2009, McNamara announced that in order to better support the Open Graphics Project, the Foundation’s funds (the product of donations) were being applied towards the Linux Fund(2) (McNamara 2009).
In 2007, TAPR created the first open hardware license. The Tucson Amateur Packet Radio Corporation (TAPR), founded in 1982, is a non-profit organization of amateur radio operators with the goals of supporting R&D efforts in the area of amateur digital communications, disseminating information on packet and digital communications, providing affordable and useful kits for experimenters and hobbyists, pursuing and helping advance the amateur art of communications, and supporting publications, meetings, and standards in the area of amateur digital communications. As part of its role in supporting groups of amateurs working on digital communications projects, TAPR offers help in turning concepts into reproducible designs and making them available as kits or finished products to others. In 2005, TAPR began working with one such group, which was developing high performance software defined radio products and wanted to contribute their free time and expertise to the ham radio community (Ackermann 2009). The group feared that their efforts might be co-opted by commercial entities and therefore asked for TAPR’s assistance in developing a license to achieve their goals (Ackermann 2009). The result was the TAPR Open Hardware License, the first hardware-specific open source license.
In July 2009, at the Grounding Open Source Hardware summit held at the Banff Center, a group of participants created the Open Hardware Design Alliance (OHANDA). One of the project’s first goals was to launch a service for open hardware design based on a certification and registration model (OHANDA). OHANDA thus created a label, in the sense of trademark, which stands for the Four Freedoms derived from the Free Software movement and adapted to hardware: the freedom to use the device for any purpose; the freedom to study how the device works and change it (access to the complete design is precondition to this); the freedom to redistribute the device and/or design (remanufacture); the freedom to improve the device and/or design, and release improvements (and modified versions in general) to the public, so that the whole community benefits.
Designers who wish to apply the OHANDA label to their projects begin by registering with the organization and in this way accept OHANDA’s terms and conditions, that is, they grant their products’ users the four freedoms the organization stands for. Creators can then register their designs and receive a unique product ID, the OKEY. The OHANDA label and the OKEY are subsequently printed/engraved on each copy of the device. This way the link to the documentation and to the contributors travels with the physical device itself and makes it a visible piece of open source hardware — with the OHANDA registration key on the product the user will be linked back to the designer, the product description, design artifacts and the public domain or copyleft license through OHANDA’s web based service. Through this process OHANDA seeks to: make public sufficient information to test/reproduce the device; collect information on new innovation; ensure openness; make the description/documentation publicly accessible; protect common knowledge; make the standard generic, universal, simple; create a venue for time-stamping, quality control & trust (Neumann and Powell 2011).
OSHW Definition, Summit & Logo
In early 2010, Ayah Bdeir, then a Creative Commons fellow, was trying to turn her project littleBits (a system of open source hardware modules) into a company. She consulted with her Creative Commons advisor, John Wiibanks, with whom she had several discussions about how to launch, run, and protect open source hardware enterprises. Together they decided to hold a workshop to share the questions and possible solutions they had been debating with other open-hardware developers. The Opening Hardware workshop took place at Eyebeam in NYC on March 2010 (Eyebeam 2010) and coincided with a major Arduino meeting which had brought several stakeholders to the city. Amongst those present were Alicia Gibb (R&D director at Bug Labs), Bunnie Wang (founder of Chumby), Chris Anderson (editor-in-chief of Wired Magazine, author of The Long Tail, and founder of DIY Drones), David A. Mellis, Gianluca Martino, Massimo Banzi, Tom Igoe (four of the five members of the Arduino Team), Nathan Seidle (founder of SparkFun), Zach Smith (co-founder of MakerBot), Limor Fried (founder of Adafruit), Phillip Torrone (creative director of Adafruit), Becky Stern (then editor at Make magazine), Benjamin Mako Hill (MIT), Jonathan Kuniholm (Open Prosthetics Project/Shared Design Alliance), Ken Gilmer (Bug Labs), and Ken Gracey (Parallax).
During the workshop, Thinh Nguyen (legal counsel at Creative Commons) and Wiibanks talked extensively about legal protections and recourse for open source hardware, and advised attendees to determine the practice’s norms instead of opting for a probably long and painful legal recourse. Based on this, Bdeir, Mellis and Windell Oskay (EMSL) orchestrated a series of posterior communications amongst the workshop’s participants which culminated in the Open Source Hardware Definition 0.1 (Freedom Defined).
Also in early 2010, Peter Semmelhack, founder of Bug Labs (a company that produces an open source modular system for building devices), approached Alicia Gibb and asked her if it would make sense to hold a meeting about open source hardware:
Peter asked if I thought a bunch of people would want to come together and hear all the issues and complications of manufacturing open source hardware and doing business as an open hardware company. He was thinking 20 people and I told him we could get 300, it would be an entire conference. And so I started planning the Summit – but it was only on the sides of manufacturing and business, when Ayah and I later joined forces, she brought the legal side to the Summit. On Jan. 18, 2010, in an email to Gibb, Peter came up with the name “Open Hardware Summit.” Then Peter and I sat down with Dale Dougherty and the decision was made to have it happen alongside of Maker Faire. (Gibb, Pers. Comm.)
These two parallel efforts converged in June 2010 when Bdeir and Gibb joined forces to organize the first Open Hardware Summit (OHS). The summit took place in NYC on September 23rd of the same year. Approximately 320 people attended, since the venue couldn’t hold more, and the summit became an annual event. The second edition of the Open Hardware Summit, chaired by Gibb and Bdeir, had 350 attendees and 22 speakers plus breakout sessions and demos. As the open source hardware practice and community continued to grow, so did the event. Its 2012 edition, chaired by Catarina Mota and Dustyn Roberts, saw close to 500 attendees and 42 speakers. Topics covered at the conference ranged from electronics, 3D printers and airplanes to biomedical devices, neuroscience, and fashion.
In the meantime, a group of stakeholders had continued to iterate the Open Source Hardware Definition, with significant contributions from David Mellis and Windell Oskay, and made version 0.3 public on July 13, 2010 (Freedom Defined). Through feedback and contributions from the public, over a period of several months, the definition continued to be discussed and refined. The Open Source Hardware Definition 1.0 is the current the stable version.
In December 2010, Nathan Seidle sent an email to the summit’s mailing list proposing the adoption of an open source hardware logo created by SparkFun’s designer. Seidle wanted to somehow indicate on SparkFun’s products that they were open source and a logo/stamp was needed. Bdeir suggested that the logo created for the Open Hardware summit be used instead, and Jonathan Kuniholm proposed that the OHANDA logo be adopted. A long discussion ensued not just on the topic of the logo, but also on the status of the definition and the need for higher cohesion amongst open source hardware stakeholders. Eventually, the OSHW Definition 1.0 was released on February 10th, 2011 (Bdeir 2011a) and endorsed by the majority of those involved. It was also decided to hold a design competition for the logo. The competition received 129 submissions, from which 10 were selected, by a group of stakeholders invited by Bdeir, and put up for public vote. On April 7, 2011 the group announced that the design “Golden Orb” by Macklin Chaffee had received the most votes (Bdeir 2011b) and consequently been selected as the symbol of agreement with and abidance by the OSHW Definition. The first open source hardware developer to apply this community mark on a product was Parallax and it has since been used on an increasing number of projects and products.
In July 2011, CERN (the renowned European Organization for Nuclear Research) issued a press release declaring that it had created an open source hardware license (CERN OHL). On this announcement, Javier Serrano, an engineer at CERN’s Beams Department and the founder of the Open Hardware Repository(3), explained the decision thus: “By sharing designs openly, CERN expects to improve the quality of designs through peer review and to guarantee their users – including commercial companies – the freedom to study, modify and manufacture them, leading to better hardware and less duplication of efforts” (CERN 2011). The license was initially drafted to address CERN-specific concerns, such as tracing the impact of the organization’s research, but in its current form it can be used by anyone developing open source hardware (Ayass 2011).
Open Hardware vs. Open Source Hardware
Only a few days after the 2011 Open Hardware Summit, and in the midst of several heated debates (4) on licenses and what constitutes open source hardware, Bruce Perens abandoned the concerted efforts of those involved in the summit and the OSHW Definition. Perens’ justification for this course of action was a concern that the selected logo could not be trademarked(5) and that the new licenses couldn’t be legally enforced (Perens 2011a). The counter arguments, voiced mostly although not exclusively by Phillip Torrone, maintained that the logo had been selected by public vote and thus should not be abandoned, that the existing system, albeit informal, had worked so far, and that most open source hardware developers couldn’t support the expense of litigation even with legally enforceable licenses to protect their work (Torrone 2011a) (Jones 2011).
As a result, and despite several attempts at reconciling these differences, the community forked into two parallel efforts: one under the banner ‘open hardware’ (‘open hardware’ had been trademarked several years earlier by Perens), and another under the banner ‘open source hardware’ or OSHW. Thus, openhardware.org now houses an organization by the same name, led by Bruce Perens, whose main goal is to identify and promote practices that meet all the combined requirements of the Open Source Hardware Definition, the Open Source Definition, and the Four Freedoms of the Free Software Foundation (Perens 2011b). And oshwa.org became the home of the Open Source Hardware Association (OSHWA), with founding efforts by Alicia Gibb, her board (Catarina Mota, Danese Cooper, Wendy Seltzer, Windell Oskay, and Nathan Seidle), legal council Aaron Williamson, and the first members of the organization. OSHWA seeks to become a hub of open source hardware activity of all genres, while cooperating with other entities such as TAPR, CERN, and OSI.
As the 2011 Summit came to a close, it became apparent that an organization was needed to house the Summit websites, financials, and general business. Gibb held a meeting at NYC Resistor and brought in several open source hardware companies to determine whether a business league or an educational non-profit would be more appropriate. Together the group chose a 501(c)3 educational non-profit and in the interest of the community, the role of OSHWA was expanded to take on other activities in open source hardware, such as housing the definition in multiple languages, providing information about standards, assisting the setup of international branches, educating the general public on what open source hardware is, collecting and publishing metrics on the movement, and encouraging projects to be open for the areas of education and economic development. The organization is intended to be built for the community by the community with a rotation of board members and leaders every two years.
The first task of OSHWA aside from setting up the infrastructure of the organization, was defending the open source hardware community mark (also know as the OSHW or gear logo), previously selected by community vote. An email from the President of the OSI was sent to Gibb informing her of infringement of the OSI logo and asking for immediate removal. OSHWA worked with the community to reach an agreement with OSI stating that the logos are used in different fields and thus different enough to avoid confusion between the two and infringement of OSI’s trademark. OSHWA further chose not to trademark the open source hardware community mark because it’s available for use to anyone whose products followed the definition and had existed in that format for 3 years.
OSHWA was established as an organization in June of 2012 in Delaware and filed for tax exemption status in July of 2013. OSHWA’s purposes are as follows: to organize conferences and events, educate the general public about open source hardware and its socially beneficial issues, organize the movement around shared values and principles, facilitate STEM education through the use of open source hardware, and finally to collect, compile, and publish data about the movement.
(1) SPI is a non-profit organization created to help other organizations develop and distribute open hardware and software. It encourages programmers to use any license that allows for the free modification, redistribution and use of software, and hardware developers to distribute documentation that will allow device drivers to be written for their product. See http://oldwww.spi-inc.org/index.html
(2) The Linux Fund is an organization that has been raising funds and making donations to free and open source software projects since 1999
(3) An online framework for collaboration among research institutes and beyond, with the goal of making available designs and documentation for modification/redistribution by all: http://web.archive.org/web/20110719151842/http://www.ohwr.org/projects/ohr-support/wiki/Manifesto
(4) Which took place through both private email exchanges and on the summit’s mailing list. Even though several people chimed in, the most vocal participants on the discussion were Phillip Torrone and Bruce Perens.
(5) A company was (unsuccessfully) attempting to trademark the label ‘Open Source Hardware’ and the current OSHW logo had been based on the one adopted by the Open Source Initiative
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