Open-source hardware makers start certifying products

The Open Source Hardware Association certification could help buyers hack into and copy products

BeagleBone Black Wireless

The BeagleBone Black Wireless is open source hardware.

Credit: BeagleBoard.org

Four years ago, Alicia Gibb was trying to unite a fragmented open-source hardware community to join together to create innovative products.

So was born the Open Source Hardware Association, which Gibb hoped would foster a community of hardware "hackers" sharing, tweaking, and updating hardware designs. It shared the ethics and ethos of open-source software and encouraged the release of hardware designs -- be it for it processors, machines, or devices -- for public reuse.

Since then, OSHWA has gained strength, with Intel, Raspberry Pi, and Sparkfun endorsing the organization. Its growth has coincided with the skyrocketing popularity of Arduino and Raspberry Pi-like developer boards -- many of them open source -- to create gadgets and IoT devices.

In recent weeks, OSHWA also met one of its initial goals: To start certifying open-source hardware. The goal of certification is to clearly differentiate open-source hardware from the mish-mash of other hardware products. The certification allows hardware designs to be replicated.

For certification, OSHWA requires hardware creators to publish a bill-of-materials list, software, schematics, design files, and other documents required to make derivative products. Those requirements could apply to circuit boards, 3D printed cases, electronics, processors, and any other hardware that meets OSHWA's definition of open-source hardware.

When hardware makers fill out a legally binding agreement, they are allowed to use an Open Hardware mark. OSHWA will host a directory for all certified products, something that doesn't exist today because the community is so fragmented.

"Users feel more confident about a product when they can see how it works," Gibb said. "Knowing your product's privacy features, compatibility with other tools, and ease of customization can encourage buyers to choose you over a competitor."

Open-sourcing hardware offers other benefits, Gibb said. The typical patent process for hardware can be costly and time-consuming, and open-sourcing hardware can instead get a product to market more quickly without a giant financial burden.

That's especially relevant at a time when more individual makers are swiftly creating compelling products at home. Cheap commodity components are powerful enough to create what could be the next big hit product.

Some notable open hardware products certified by OSHWA in just a few weeks include the BeagleBone Black Wireless and a number of other boards from SparkFun. The list will grow over the coming months. There are many open-source developer boards, like MinnowBoard, Orange Pi, and 96boards' single-board-computers, that could be registered.

Products being certified also include 3D printed devices. 3D Central has certified 3D printable over-ear headphones and has published the print files, documented CAD, and assembly instructions.

"If a customer buys a pair of our headphones, the certification provides a way for a user to easily access the documentation," said Chris Caswell, lead designer at 3D Central. For example, buyers can easily "replace the foam pads when they wear out or reprint a part that's broken," he added.

As a maker himself, Andrew Sink, director of business development at 3D Central, is excited about the open-source hardware directory because it shows existing products he can incorporate into projects. The certification solves a problem of attribution for the creator.

"Most of our designs are published using Creative Commons Share-Alike copyright license, and it is always painful when our designs are sold by competitors who do not provide the attribution," Sink said.

For products that are Open Hardware certified, the logo effectively is an attribution that stays with the product, Sink said.

OSHWA has built credibility in the open-source hardware community through its popular Open Hardware Summit. The organization has been endorsed by universities, makers, companies, and hacker spaces.

With the certification, hardware makers will feel a sense of belonging to the community, said Michael Weinberg, a board member for OSHWA and intellectual property lawyer and general counsel at Shapeways.

"People want to be associated with open source," Weinberg said.

For OSHWA, certifying products could set in motion the creation of a central resource for open-source hardware. But like open-source software licensing, it's a long process. Unity among the makers on the definition of open-source hardware will be important.

Some approvals for products that don't deserve certification could initially slip through the cracks, but the vetting process to ensure that hardware is really open source will intensify over time, Weinberg said.

The certification has limits, however. The Open Hardware label won't protect companies from getting sued for copyright infringement, Weinberg said.

If another hardware maker alleges an Open Hardware product infringes copyright, then OSHWA will talk to its maker about expectations and definition of open-source hardware. The organization will learn and grow, he said.

Gibb has more plans for OSHWA. She wants to ask the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to refer to the open-source product directory as a source of prior art. 

"Prior art is what allows open source hardware to be recognized and [blocks] the ability to patent the same work. It is integral to open-source hardware," Gibb said.

Once the definition of Open Hardware matures, the certification directory could become a full-fledged open-source hardware repository, Gibb said. For now, there are no such plans because creating and managing a repository is a huge task.

"It may take a while for the community to determine what the core functions and features of a repository would be, but the certification has started that conversation," Gibb said.

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