Atoms and Bits Convergence
On the one hand we see how all sorts of electronic sensors and actuators are connected to the Internet bridging the physical and the digital realm. Some call it the Internet of Things. On the other hand we see how digital instructions (CAD/CAM) are shaping physical artefacts through machines such as 3D printers, CNC mills, laser cutters etc. The sharing of digital design files without artificial restrictions such as patents and exclusive design rights is causing a rapid advance in better and cheaper machine tools and objects. Some call this a third industrial revolution, as it nears zero marginal costs for near perfect reproduction. As the scale of mass production is going down to one unit, manufacturing knowledge and capabilities are being distributed from mass producers back to the artisans, enabling relocalisation to satisfy the needs of local communities locally.
The Free Knowledge Institute values freedom and sustainability through collaboration and empowerment. As defined in our Strategy we work for liberating knowledge, in various domains. In the domain of hardware and physical objects more generally, we follow with great attention the developments of open hardware, that is hardware whose design, modification and manufacturing is free from any artificial restrictions. We embrace the definition as published at Freedom Defined for "Open Source Hardware" (OSHW). The term is defined as "tangible artefacts -- 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 those things". These four freedoms (or rights) are the defining criterion of free software and free knowledge. Therefore we prefer the term of "free hardware", paying attribution to the preceding concepts that are rooted in these same user freedoms.
Note on terminology: "hardware"
In many languages the term hardware is an imported term that relates to computer hardware. However in English the term has a much wider meaning, denoting "Fixtures, equipment, tools and devices used for general-purpose construction and repair of a structure or object" (Wiktionary). When we refer to free or open (source) hardware, we do so in this wider meaning.
The FKI aims to contribute to the domain of hardware through studying and providing learning opportunities about the most important trends and relevant projects that enable users to participate in this domain with the maximum freedom. That implies that our focus is wider than only that of free hardware. Namely, we distinguish between different a) levels of freedom, b) product classes and c) different production and usage models.
These three dimensions in practice overlap in several ways, which can produce some kind of free hardware but with very different characteristics and constraints. When it comes to levels of freedom, we can distinguish:
- Hardware you can build from scratch yourself that doesn't require permissions or licenses. This hardware can have varying degrees of freedom in the sense of what documentation is published and what tools are available to facilitate its replication.
- Hardware you cannot build independently because it is limited by secret designs, patents or other artificial barriers put in place, but that allows you to use 100% of its capabilities because the interface specification is fully disclosed and usable without restriction. An example is the Rasberry Pi.
Product-wise, we can classify hardware and hardware-related tools in these three main, very broad categories:
- Actual microelectronics physical components: design, manufacture and/or use physical microelectronics products, from printed circuit boards to microcontrollers or microcomputers like Arduino, Raspberry;
- digital design files of non-microelectronics objects published with a free license;
- tools (incl. software) for Computer-controlled manufacturing of physical objects in the first two categories (3D printers, CNC machinery, laser cutters, etc)
Finally, when it comes to production and usage models, we can distinguish between DIY done for non-commercial private use, and DIY manufacturing to sell the products to other users. In the first case legal restrictions may not apply or can hardly be enforced. This may also be in DIT (Do It Together) or DIWO (Do it With Others) settings. In this case, the manufacture and sale may be limited. Imagine you replicate a broken part of a household machine. The part may be patented, but you just replicate it for your own use.
Note on terminology: "products"
Objects or artefacts that can be considered in the scope of free hardware are generally called "products" when sold in the market. And while this connotation of selling products is currently dominant, we observe however that the term "products" doesn't need to be a "commodity for sale". The term "product" comes from the latin root "productus" and means "anything that is produced". We understand products in that sense. Other terms can be chosen depending on the context like machines, tools, projects, artefacts, objects.
We define as specific objectives for our endeavours in this area the following:
- to study and share the most interesting and relevant technologies, tools, applications, persons, organisations, spaces, events;
- to study the current user freedoms and how these are protected by licenses and otherwise; what main challenges threaten the collective projects and what solutions are being or can be developed;
- to develop and provide learning resources and courses on these subjects.
In this context we have special attention to the following two aspects.
Systems are often composed of various subsystems and the process of substituting each and every part by Free Hardware subsystems may take a long time depending on the concrete object. Modularity, however, should be promoted because, besides favouring "Free as in Freedom" Hardware as such, it also contrasts programmed obsolescence and related problems, such as the environmental impact of discarded hardware.
Protecting the commons
The most adequate legal tools for protecting the design commons against privatisation may still need to evolve depending on the specific technology, application and/or national or supranational legislation. The same applies to regulations and legal tools related to to the intersections of hardware practices and consumer rights and/or consumer protection issues (safety, warranty, insurances...)
For this purpose we are making use of the FKI wiki for documentation. We hope to be able to add case studies and in depth discussion of the mentioned aspects. Therefore we have developed an initial categorisation. If you are interested to contribute, let us know through the FKI website contact form or on one of the mailing lists.