Open Source Hardware Basics

Interested in building your own hardware projects? Customizing other projects? Have new ideas you want to share with the world? Open source hardware may be for you. Learn about the basics of open source hardware.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is open source hardware?

Open Source Hardware (OSHW) is a term for physical object — machines, devices, or other physical things — whose design has been released to the public in such a way that anyone can make, modify, distribute, and use them. Making these objects available to others requires two steps: 1) making source files, bills of material, and other information about the hardware available to the public so that users understand how the hardware works, and 2) licensing the hardware in a way that allows others to make use of and build upon this information.

Open source hardware is all about allowing others to build on and improve existing hardware. However, if you decide to reproduce or build upon someone else’s hardware, you have an obligation to make it clear that the versions that you produce are not manufactured, sold, warrantied, or otherwise sanctioned by the original designer. Additionally, you should not make use of any trademarks owned by the original designer in a way that implies such a relationship.

Why open source hardware?

Open source hardware gives people the freedom to control their technology while sharing knowledge and encouraging commerce through the open exchange of designs. It is hardware whose design is made publicly available so that anyone can study, modify, distribute, make, and sell the design or hardware based on that design. The hardware’s source, the design from which it is made, is available in the preferred format for making modifications to it. Ideally, open source hardware uses readily-available components and materials, standard processes, open infrastructure, unrestricted content, and open-source design tools to maximize the ability of individuals to make and use hardware.

How do I make hardware open source?

There are four basic “elements” of an open source hardware project. Not all projects will have all of these elements, and some may have features that do not fall neatly within these categories.

Broadly speaking, the four main elements of an open source hardware project are:

  • Hardware - The physical functional components/elements of the product (i.e. the product itself) (required)
  • Software - Any code, firmware, or software involved in product’s function
  • Documentation - Design files, schematics, instructions, etc. (required)
  • Branding - Brand names, product names, logos, and product designs (optional, but recommended)

In order for hardware to be considered open source under the community definition of open source hardware, you must make information about your project publicly available and certify that you have chosen an appropriate open source license for each your hardware, software (if applicable), and documentation.

Branding can be trademarked and is recommended. It is the way that you can show what hardware comes specifically from you. Branding does not fall into the scope of opening your source to be considered open source.

WHAT IS OSHWA CERTIFICATION?

OSHWA certification for open source hardware allows users to know that the definition of “open source hardware” used by a specific project matches the community definition of open source. It also provides a unique ID for certified hardware to help users find documentation for open hardware. Hardware developers who meet the requirements for making their projects open source may self-certify their projects as OSHWA-compliant open source hardware. Completing the certification creates a legally binding and unique logo that can only be used by projects that comply with the community definition of open source hardware.