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Hardware Technology

A Critical Look At Open Licensing For Hardware 123

Posted by timothy
from the repeat-with-caution dept.
Glyn Moody writes "At a recent Open Hardware Camp in London, it became clear that one of the main obstacles to applying open source principles to hardware was licensing. For example, should competing big companies be allowed to use their economies of scale to make and sell cheaper products based on open hardware designs developed by small start-ups without payment? There's also the problem that hacking designs for physical objects like open source cars may have safety implications, which raises questions about liability. So what's the best way to address these issues?"
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A Critical Look At Open Licensing For Hardware

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  • by Improv (2467) <pgunn@dachte.org> on Wednesday December 09, 2009 @05:53PM (#30381564) Homepage Journal

    I don't understand why there would be security implications in having open designs for physical objects, unless those designs are pretty lousy and have faults that are only visible with the design.

  • open design (Score:5, Insightful)

    by TheSHAD0W (258774) on Wednesday December 09, 2009 @05:57PM (#30381624) Homepage

    It's an "open design" for a reason. Perhaps switch "open design" for "easy licensing options". Further, unless a big company forks the project, the originator usually has some control over the progress of the project, which means their smaller product becomes a "reference platform" with some added value even if the bigger company has a somewhat cheaper version.

  • Re:open design (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous McCartneyf (1037584) on Wednesday December 09, 2009 @06:07PM (#30381742) Homepage Journal

    Further, unless a big company forks the project

    Remember the Microsoft mantra: "Embrace, extend, extinguish."

  • Licensing (Score:4, Insightful)

    by cheesybagel (670288) on Wednesday December 09, 2009 @06:07PM (#30381756)

    For example, should competing big companies be allowed to use their economies of scale to make and sell cheaper products based on open hardware designs developed by small start-ups without payment?

    This is called a non-commercial license. Non-commercial licenses have had a notoriously poor market reception in the past for software (no kidding). Only successful project I remember which uses such a license is MAME. People usually hate it for that, since you cannot easily port work to/from MAME and other open-source projects easily. If you do not allow people to manufacture hardware in a commercial basis, it will be even worse, since most people do not have the resources to manufacture hardware. It is nearly as bad as having a closed design.

    'Hacking' for unlawful purposes is a problem with any design.

  • by Chris Burke (6130) on Wednesday December 09, 2009 @06:09PM (#30381776) Homepage

    Cars have been "open" by default for the majority of their existence -- they may not hand you schematics, but all the workings of the car were out in the open for any mechanic to see and generally well understood. Mechanics could replace or rebuild just about any part of the car including replacing the engine with a from-scratch rebuild, and this behavior was not only generally tolerated but often encouraged by the auto makers. It's only in relatively recent times with the advent of computer control that the ability to hide the workings of the vehicle even became possible, and even more recently that these computers were used to try to create a "proprietary" environment where you couldn't have any random mechanic fix your car (and this attempt has largely failed).

    Safety and liability are no more an issue than it was with hot rods and such back in the day. It's simple: Your vehicle, modified or no, has to comply with state and federal laws regarding road worthiness, and pass any inspections your state might have. If your car fails because of the original manufacturer's design, then it's their fault. If it fails because of a 3rd party modification, that's their fault. If it fails because of your tinkering in your garage, that's your fault. Grey areas are hammered out in the courts, like they always have been.

  • wrong question (Score:3, Insightful)

    by wizardforce (1005805) on Wednesday December 09, 2009 @06:10PM (#30381790) Journal

    For example, should competing big companies be allowed to use their economies of scale to make and sell cheaper products based on open hardware designs developed by small start-ups without payment?

    Hardware isn't special in requiring money/time to develop so why is it that this question only really gets asked when an open philosophy is applied to physical objects?

    There's also the problem that hacking designs for physical objects like open source cars may have safety implications

    No not really, any liability would presumably be on the one that took the blueprints and actually build the device. After all, it is an open deisgn that can be modified by the manufacturer of choice.

  • by davidwr (791652) on Wednesday December 09, 2009 @06:18PM (#30381892) Homepage Journal

    I wouldn't run open source software on a pacemaker.

    From a quality perspective, open source isn't the issue. The issue is the quality of the hardware and software and the rigorous testing required for its use and the backing by a company that can and will stand behind it.

    If you got a pacemaker and the next day the company open-sourced the code, would you ask to have it removed?

    If your doctor recommended a pacemaker which used open-source code that the vendor had scrutinized, tweaked, hardened, debugged, etc. so well that this pacemaker was considered the best one on the market, would you reject it because it was open source?

  • Uh... yah? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Blakey Rat (99501) on Wednesday December 09, 2009 @06:23PM (#30381934)

    For example, should competing big companies be allowed to use their economies of scale to make and sell cheaper products based on open hardware designs developed by small start-ups without payment?

    Unless you define "open" as "not open", then the answer to this is obviously yes.

    If you want to work out some other kind of deal, then please don't call it "open-" anything, it'll just confuse matters.

  • by gujo-odori (473191) on Wednesday December 09, 2009 @08:01PM (#30383030)

    I don't think it's quite that simple. Let's assume, for instance, that all farming can be done completely by machine, better than humans can do it and with no human intervention except when the machine breaks (oops, there's a labor cost; machines are not very good at fixing other machines). There is still a company that makes those machines, and that company employs people. There's some more cost.

    Let's cut all the way to the replicator level and say we have a machine that can scan an IH combine and spit out as many more as it needs. That replicator still needs a lot of raw materials that need to be mined or recycled, and and made available to it for use in replication. Unless of course it can turn some common material such as dirt into anything it needs. The first type remains firmly in the world of science fiction. The second type is more like the world of fantasy.

    There's only one thing harder than any of your scenarios: eliminating the desire in people to have money, or something that takes the role of money: providing a conduit for people to have more of something than other people. That desire may sound like a bad thing on its surface, but it's actually not. Work, and the desire to obtain its fruits, is in our nature. Without it, we'd be like the people in Wall-E. OK, some people are already like that. We don't want to make it worse.

  • by gujo-odori (473191) on Wednesday December 09, 2009 @08:19PM (#30383218)

    Not necessarily. Let's say I write a program that lets you modify parameters of your car's engine computer and go racing and release it as-is and under the GPL. Or, for even greater "as-as"-ness, give it the sort of disclaimers that would accompany proprietary software sold for the same purpose.

    So, you use my software to re-tune your engine and because of a bug it causes your mixture to go really lean at high RPMS and you burn your pistons the first time you go racing. Good luck suing me. You might try, but it had a big notice that said "WARNING: THIS SOFTWARE MAY DESTROY YOUR ENGINE, BURN YOUR HOUSE, STEAL YOUR CAR, DRINK YOUR LIQUOR FROM YOUR OLD FRUIT JAR, AND EVEN STEP ON YOUR BLUE SUEDE SHOES. USE AT YOUR OWN RISK."

    We get into court. At the earliest opportunity, my lawyer says, "So, this software comes with a warning that it may destroy your engine, yet you used it anyway?" "Uh, yes."

    Move it to the realm of hardware. I design a car. I release the design under the GPL, or a comparable documentation license, with the usual disclaimers as above, that it might not even work, use at your own risk, intended for use only by professional mechanics or automobile designers, if you build this you may crash and be killed or permanently injured, blahblahblah. You download my design, actually build the car, take it to a test track, and drive it. On your first lap, the wheels come off, you crash, and are crippled for life. You decide to sue me. Problem one is you ignored all disclaimers and safety warnings and built and drove it anyway. If you get past all that, you're going to have to prove that the fault was with my design, and not your workmanship, materials, or any mods you made to my design. You may need to prove that you didn't mod my design. The burden of proof is on you, after all. Especially if I've actually build and drive one based on my plan and didn't crash or have the wheels come off.

    Case three: I start a company that builds cars based on my design and get them certified as road-legal in the US and start selling them. After they've been in service for a while, people start crashing because the front wheels are falling off. They sue me. Now I'm in trouble, because I actually built the thing and provide it to people.

    Case four: you start a company that uses my design, and have an experience like the above and get sued. People sue you for selling them a car with wheels that fall off. You decide you want to sue me because I designed it and put the plans on the Internet. Likely a non-starter, for the same reasons as above: I put it out there with all the warnings that it might not even work, hasn't been tested, blahblahblah, and you chooe to design and build a car around it anyway.

    =

  • by westlake (615356) on Wednesday December 09, 2009 @08:53PM (#30383550)

    If your doctor recommended a pacemaker which used open-source code that the vendor had scrutinized, tweaked, hardened, debugged, etc. so well that this pacemaker was considered the best one on the market, would you reject it because it was open source?

    The design and manufacture of the pacemaker has to meet rigorous legal requirements.

    It's a very expensive proposition.

    If you are in this business, I don't know why you would want to trade a quarter century of experience in house for code that gives you nothing you don't already have.

  • by BhaKi (1316335) on Thursday December 10, 2009 @12:29AM (#30384932)
    Who asked open-source hardware? I just want hardware whose programming interfaces are completely documented.

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