everything from water collection, pumping,
storage, and treatment to a dry toilet and
Most of the plans for basic sanitation infrastructure at Akvo are released under the
GNU Free Documentation License (FDL).
The FDL is not quite the same thing as the
public domain, wherein the rights holder
releases all rights. For example, although
the FDL generates free documentation with
support for modification and redistribution,
derivative works must allow at least an equal
degree of freedom.
Although open source hardware and software is transparent and often free of cost,
licensing considerations must still be taken
into account by both rights holder and end
user. Intellectual property automatically
assumes copyright protection under the current legal system, and open source licenses
are needed to define how those protections
will apply. Of course, these licenses are liberal by design, intended not only to allow
but encourage use and propagation of the
work in a much freer way than closed source
In the world of open source software, several major licenses have emerged in common
use, such as the GPL (GNU Public License),
Apple Public Source License, Apache License,
and the BSD License. These licenses vary in
the ways in which they protect the copyright
of the original creator and encourage modification and re-use, with some licenses being
more liberal than others (to greatly oversimplify).
Some open source hardware plans are
released under the “Creative Commons
Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported”
license, which allows users to share and
modify work so long as they attribute the
work as specified by the original author.
The trouble is that licenses like the Creative
Commons and open source software versions
necessarily address copyright usage. Open
source hardware involves documentation and
source code, both of which can be addressed
by copyright-based licenses, but hardware
also includes physical products—which do
not fall under the jurisdiction of copyright.
To address the need for a formal license
specifically written to the requirement
of open source hardware, attorney John
Ackermann has drafted the TAPR Open
Hardware License (OHL). Much like the
GPL does for open source software, the OHL
allows users the use of covered products
without limitation, and to modify and redistribute modified products so long as they
include published modifications and that they
are covered by the OHL.
As has happened with open source software, though, it may take some years and
test cases for legal clarity to emerge in open
Freedom as In Speech
There is a saying in open source software,
“free as in speech or free as in beer.” Beer,
in this saying, refers to stuff—any stuff.
Obviously open source hardware cannot be
expected to produce “free beer.”
But free speech represents freedom of
expression, liberating the uses to which customers can put the stuff that they acquire,
whether for “free” (as in beer) or not. Having
already made significant inroads with software, ultimately the radical contribution of
open source hardware is its expansion of the
“free as in speech” concept to products we
will buy, use, and hold— a liberty st~ill mostly absent from the electronics market.
Aaron Weiss is a technology writer and
Web developer shivering in upstate New York, as
well as human proprieter of livenudecats.com
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