Open Source Hardware

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According to the Open Source Hardware (OSHW) Statement of Principles 1.0: "Open source hardware 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." Hereafter a discussion of the terms used in this definition.

What is hardware?

The term "hardware" in open source hardware has originally been used in analogy to the term "software" of "open source software". It originally refers to electronic hardware, i.e. the hardware on which the software is run. This meaning of the term is still present in the Wikipedia entry for "open source hardware". However, as more and more non-electronic products are being made open source, the term hardware tends to be used back in its broader sense of "physical products". In that sense, hardware refers to any form of tangible products, may it be electronic hardware, mechanical hardware, textile or even construction hardware. The Open Source Hardware (OSHW) Statement of Principles 1.0 defines hardware as "tangible artifacts — machines, devices, or other physical things."

What does publicly available mean?

The Open Source Hardware (OSHW) Statement of Principles 1.0 further specifies that "where documentation is not furnished with the physical product, there must be a well-publicized means of obtaining this documentation for no more than a reasonable reproduction cost, preferably downloading via the Internet without charge." This suggests three possible options to make the product publicly available:

  1. the product is delivered with the documentation;
  2. the product is delivered with a link to an online repository where the documentation can be accessed without further payment;
  3. the documentation is available online and easy to find.

In cases the documentation is accessed online, the requirement of no discrimination against persons or groups of the Open Source Hardware (OSHW) Statement of Principles 1.0 further suggests that the access should not imply any registration mechanism with validation by an administrator (hence giving the possiblity to exclude people or groups).

Nota bene, according to this definition a systematic online publication of the documentation is not a necessary condition to label a product as "open source."

What documentation is meant to be made publicly available?

What is meant with "documentation" is not precisely defined . Only CAD files in their native file formats are given as examples. What information has to be shared in order to allow any interested person to study, modify, make and distribute a piece of mechanical hardware—in other words, what is the source of open source mechanical hardware—is a question that is not trivial and remains unanswered in this definition.

A possibility to dive deeper in this definition is to mention that it implies four degrees of freedoms regarding a considered piece of hardware:

  • Freedom to study: i.e. the right to access all necessary information to understand how the piece of hardware (referred herein as the product) works and to retrace the logic behind its design;
  • Freedom to modify: i.e. the right to edit the product definition documents and to tweak or develop the product further for any purpose;
  • Freedom to make: i.e. the right to use the product definition documents to manufacture the piece of hardware;
  • Freedom to distribute: i.e. the right to share or sell the product definition documents as well as the physical products fabricated according to these documents.

An analysis of current and already published best practices [1][2] shows that:

  • freedom to study can be supported by the publication of schematics, 2D or 3D CAD files;
  • freedom to make can be supported by the publication of bills of materials and assembly instructions;
  • freedom to modify can be supported by the publication of all these documents in their original editable format;
  • freedom to redistribute can be supported by the publication of all documents under a license allowing commercial usage.

It is however not clear whether all the four freedoms have to be ensured or whether it is enough to ensure one of them so you can label your product "open source". In the absence of clear guidance, we developed the Open-O-meter, a simple scale allowing to assess the openness of a product.

Delineation with other terms

  • OSH is not DIY, although both open source hardware and do-it-yourself design are two interwoven phenomena. Not all open source hardware is meant for DIY production (e.g. OSVehicle) and not all DIY products are open source in the sense of the definition given here (e.g. DIY instructions that are published in magazines). However, a large part of open source hardware products identified in our database are only produced in a DIY fashion. Also, availability of product related information is an enabler of DIY. For a discussion of the definition of DIY see Bonvoisin, Galla and Prendeville: Design Principles for Do-It-Yourself Production[3] (unfortunately behin a paywall).


  1. Bonvoisin, Jérémy, Kerstin Carola Schmidt, Best Practices of Open Source Mechanical Hardware – A guide with practical advice for sharing product-related documentation – Version 1.0.
  2. Open Source Hardware Association, Best Practices for Open-Source Hardware 1.0
  3. Bonvoisin, J. K. Galla, S. Prendeville. 2017. "Design Principles for Do-It-Yourself Production." In: Campana G., Howlett R., Setchi R., Cimatti B. (eds) Sustainable Design and Manufacturing 2017, 77-86. Smart Innovation, Systems and Technologies, vol 68. Springer, Cham.