What is the “Source” of Open Source Hardware?

Jérémy Bonvoisin, Robert Mies, Jean-François Boujut, Rainer Stark

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


What “open source” means once applied to tangible products has been so far mostly addressed through the light of licensing. While this approach is suitable for software, it appears to be over-simplistic for complex hardware products. Whether such a product can be labelled as open source is not only a question of licence but a question of documentation, i.e. what is the information that sufficiently describes it? Or in other words, what is the “source” of open source hardware? To date there is no simple answer to this question, leaving large room for interpretation in the usage of the term. Based on analysis of public documentation of 132 products, this paper provides an overview of how practitioners tend to interpret the concept of open source hardware. It specifically focuses on the recent evolution of the open source movement outside the domain of electronics and DIY to that of non-electronic and complex open source hardware products. The empirical results strongly indicate the existence of two main usages of open source principles in the context of tangible products: publication of product-related documentation as a means to support community-based product development and to disseminate privately developed innovations. It also underlines the high variety of interpretations and even misuses of the concept of open source hardware. This reveals in turn that this concept may not even be clear to practitioners and calls for more narrowed down definitions of what has to be shared for a product to be called open source. This article contributes towards this effort through the definition of an open source hardware lifecycle summarizing the observed approaches to open source hardware.
Original languageEnglish
Article number5
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of Open Hardware
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 5 Sept 2017


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