Become a fan of Slashdot on Facebook


Forgot your password?
Hardware Technology

A Critical Look At Open Licensing For Hardware 123

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?"
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

A Critical Look At Open Licensing For Hardware

Comments Filter:
  • by ( 1563557 ) on Wednesday December 09, 2009 @06:03PM (#30381698)

    In the case of cars, I fail to see why it would create any more of a liability issue than the DIY kit cars currently available. I suspect if it can pass inspection, it can be insured. For cars at least liability lies with the drivers (barring some catastrophic equipment failure, which obviously the manufacturers would be liable for).

    So, I would assume that if there exists an appropriate ratings committee, standards, and inspectors to ensure safety (QA), liability would be a non-issue.

  • by davidwr ( 791652 ) on Wednesday December 09, 2009 @06:10PM (#30381794) Homepage Journal

    There's a reason they don't use homebrew Linux* with the cool-patch-of-the-day in medical and other high-risk-if-something-goes-wrong devices: liability.

    *Nothing wrong with Linux or any other open OS in medical devices, as long as the entire system has gone through all the regulatory and industry-standard quality checks first. Notice how the Microsoft Windows license says "don't use this in your nuclear reactor, if you do don't sue us if it melts down" or words to that effect. At least with Linux you could in principle tweak it until it was robust enough to run your nuclear plant.

  • by w4rl5ck ( 531459 ) on Wednesday December 09, 2009 @06:13PM (#30381818) Homepage

    ... and hardware, here.

    1. liability - so, you say, software does not lead to "liability"? No coder is liable for the code he writes? I don't think so. Just have a look at all those "no liability" clauses. And: yes, software - even OSS - can kill people. I'm pretty sure a lot of OSS software is responsibly for deaths in many wars taking place right now. So there really is no difference between an open licensed car and some OSS software - maybe operating IN that car.

    2. cost - so, just because it's hardware, it is assumed that developing the hardware - with a big company "prospering" on it afterwords - is somehow different from software. I don't get why that is. It was never meant as "free as in beer" - there seems to be some misconception in this, yes.

    Just because you can't touch the software, the implications for the programmer writing and open-licensing an OSS program are absolutely the same for a hardware developer.

    Of course, building/prototyping hardware CAN be more expensive, but thinking of software development as "cheap" just because you can get a PC for ~$200 - yeah, well, no... not really.

  • Popular Mechanics (Score:3, Interesting)

    by argent ( 18001 ) <peter&slashdot,2006,taronga,com> on Wednesday December 09, 2009 @06:16PM (#30381862) Homepage Journal

    I don't think "open source hardware" is really that much like "open source software" unless you've got matter duplicators (like in Ralph Williams' story "Business as Usual, During Alterations"). It's more like publishing plans in Popular Mechanics or Howto books.

  • by thetoadwarrior ( 1268702 ) on Wednesday December 09, 2009 @06:26PM (#30381980) Homepage
    If you wanted to build a car or whatever and sell it, whether or not it's based on an open source design it would still be required to meet the same standards.

    If you want to mod your own car and make it illegal then you could do that but that would only last one year (assuming you don't get caught) until the inspection.

    We do have open source hardware already, one big name being Sparc [] but I suspect the reason it won't ever take off in a big way has to come down to the fact it's probably harder to recoup your R&D costs if someone comes in with dirt cheap chinese labour to build an exact copy. At least with software everyone is more or less on the same terms with distribution costs on the net.
  • Re:no, they havent. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Chris Burke ( 6130 ) on Wednesday December 09, 2009 @06:49PM (#30382274) Homepage

    You're right, I understated the degree to which aspects of the vehicle design are proprietary (and not just proprietary but unknown), and this isn't just from the computers.

    However my main point is that "open" cars are not a new concept whatsoever, and the legal/safety/liability ramifications are already established. You might not be able to replace the cylinder in your recent Accord, but a buddy of mine is doing exactly what I talked about and rebuilding an Alpha Romeo engine from scratch.

    So yes vehicles have been trending towards being less "open", but that doesn't mean reversing this trend is actually some brand new concept.

  • by samuel.hurley ( 1220378 ) on Wednesday December 09, 2009 @08:28PM (#30383300) Homepage
    FYI -- open source software runs on lots of medical devices. Many software products driving CT & MRI scanners, machines used to guide brain surgery, even anesthesia equipment all run on top of GNU/Linux or other forms of OSS.
  • by queazocotal ( 915608 ) on Wednesday December 09, 2009 @09:16PM (#30383758)

    Let's take for example the OpenMoko Freerunner.
    It's a mobile phone, with open schematics.

    How much would it cost to make one?

    It sells for $500 or so, so you might guess $250.

    But - that's somewhat different to the question of what it would take to make one. [] - as a reasonable priced chinese PCB service I've looked at - though not used - in the past.
    For one 50*100mm 8 layer PCB (what you need if you're going to put dense chips on both sides) - they charge $40 for 1-5 PCBs.
    But - with a $200 setup cost.

    So - $250 for the first PCB.
    Parts cost for ten thousand phones may be $150 or so.
    But - buying ones of everything, all the parts will cost you $400 very optimistically.

    Assembling and soldering this together - there are well over a hundred parts - say $100.

    So, that's $750 to get your first prototype.

    It doesn't boot.
    After a couple of weeks and several dead-ends, you find you forgot to connect a pin with a slightly ambiguous name on the datasheet that turns out not to be as unimportant as you thought.

    So, if you can't work round it - and it turns out that it's a buried high-speed node under several layers of PCB that is completely inacessible, you need a new PCB made.

    Another $750 for the whole lot again. Oh - you may try to reuse some of the parts - but all of these parts do not warranty more than one use, and with a 1% failure rate on removed parts, and the fact that a failed part may stall you for weeks - do you want to do that?

    So, you get your new PCB, populate it, and it boots and prints 'loading the lin' and crashes.

    After another weeks work, you work out that your routing of the RAM tracks has been slightly out of spec, and that unless you clock the system at under 12MHz, it doesn't work at all.

    So, you test all you can at 12MHz, and get another board done.

    After a week of wondering why this board doesn't work, you find that one component was installed backwards. Fixing that reveals...

    For example, the freerunner release candidate boards had over 7 revisions - and there are still issues with it, and this was a professionally made board made by an actual factory that does these sorts of things all the time.

    This hasn't even touched on the sourcing of parts.
    For many parts this isn't an issue.
    You can get most chips just fine from many sources online.

    Some parts and modules however - in the mass produced and phone sector - are simply unavailable unless you are willing to order 100000. You can't even get docs unless the companies think you will order. And any docs you do get will be under NDA.

    Some of these have no easy alternative. You simply can't buy a mobile phone radio chipset for example. You can buy modules - which may have a 200% price, 200% volume penalty.

  • by Rophuine ( 946411 ) on Wednesday December 09, 2009 @09:19PM (#30383784) Homepage

    Which is why open-source should work well. Test it slow-and-crappy, polish, and get to the point your risk is much lower in getting something printed. I'm not saying you can do anything on a breadboard, just that you can do lots of interesting stuff on them, and you can definitely do a lot of your preliminary debugging for all sorts of projects. This massively reduces the risk that you'll end up shelling out $100 bucks a few times over for buggy PCBs. Iteratively design and 'release'-early-and-often, iron out all the wrinkles, and then (hopefully) you'll have a community starting around your design and can get together to buy a whole panel of the things.

    And >8 bits? I hate wiring up busses, and even I don't start complaining until we hit at least 16 bits, and a few devices hanging off them. Spring-loaded sockets and good single-core wire just makes it so easy. Admittedly, if you start hanging >~5 devices off them, even 8-bitters can start to suck.

    Oh, on the off-chance anyone reading is still shelling out $$$ for packs of breadboard wire: go buy a couple of meters of single-core CAT5 from somewhere that sells it that way. Give your little sister a set of wire strippers and like $5, and you can have ten times what you get in those little packs that cost like $10 for pretty much the same price.

  • to let the small start ups and big companies use the old technology and see who can make a better system with it.

    The old MOS 6502 and 65816 series CPUs should be open sourced hardware so that companies can make cheap 8 bit computers based on them, or even design new computers using them in a creative way. Commodore should open source the VIC-20, Commodore 64/128, Commodore 16/Plus4. Atari should open source the 400/800/800XL.1200XL, Apple should open source the Apple // and //gs line of computers.

    The old Motorola 6800/6809 and 68K series should be open sourced so we can have old Motorola based systems recreated for a low cost. Apple should open source the 68K Macs, Atari open source the Atari ST, Radio Shack open source the COCO (Color Computer) line, Amiga open source the 68K Amiga line and let the best company reproduce the old systems.

    Intel should open source the 8088/8086, 80286, 80386, 80486, and Pentium chips and IBM and Compaq open source their old systems that used the 486 and under processors. Then we can use MS-DOS on them or FreeDOS and see who can build the better DOS based computer. OpenGEM is already open sourced DRI GEM, and I'd like to see 386MOS, Taskview, Desqview, IBM PC-DOS, DR-DOS, etc open sourced as well. I know OS/2 cannot be open sourced due to 300+ third party code IP, but OSFree is an open source project to create an open source alternative to OS/2 and IBM needs to contribute to it to develop it further.

    The AM/FM Cassette players, 8 Track Tape players, VHS Video Recorders, etc should be open sourced so that cheaper versions can be made. I know it is old tech but media for them still exists and people have a need to play and listen to their old media.

    The old cars that aren't made anymore need to be open sourced as well. The 1890 to 1950's cars should be released to open source so that people can put modern engines in them and make parts to replace those on existing cars that need repairs and upgrades. The auto companies cannot afford to upgrade them and replace parts for them anymore, so let the others deal with it.

    Someone needs to create an open source hardware plugin hybrid engine for cars, and then adapt them to any vehicle to swap out the gas powered engine for the plugin hybrid one. We need this to convert old gas guzzler cars to hybrids as cheaply as possible. If not most people won't be able to afford new Hybrids. We need to be able to take the $500 car that gets 10 MPG and convert it for under $500 to a Hybrid engine.

What is algebra, exactly? Is it one of those three-cornered things? -- J.M. Barrie