[Discuss] Free Hardware

Wouter Tebbens wouter at freeknowledge.eu
Thu Mar 12 15:20:56 UTC 2015

Hi Drew and all,

thanks for posting this article.

In practical terms I agree with you that Open Source Hardware seems a
term more often used then Free/Libre Hardware, and I admit that for this
reason I often talk about Open (Source) Hardware myself.

Howevr, as co-founder of the Free Knowledge Institute (FKI) I do need to
insist on the *freedom* aspects - as you can imagine ;-)

Of course "free" is often misinterpreted for cost-free instead of
free-as-in-freedom - at least (and almost only) in the English language.
But maybe even more so, some people in the community expected that
people in the business sector would be afraid of freedom, that it could
be revolutionary, and would make companies loose control over "their"
market (which in some way it does of course). Wasn't that one of the
core reasons that Raymond, Berens c.s. started to use the term "open
source" in 1997/1998 at Netscape?

Here we should admit that the open access to the source code is just a
prerequisite to the freedoms as defined in the Free Software Definition.
That access alone doesn't make anything "open source" really. So the
term is easily misinterpreted as well. Openness itself refers to open
access, and doesn't give users any rights over anything they can access.

Given that both free-as-in-freedom and open-as-in-open-source (according
to the Debian Free Software Guidelines) have their misinterpretations
and need a considerable level of understanding and awareness, I / we at
the FKI prefer to talk about Free Software and free-as-in-freedom, as it
is the first term defined (a good academic tradition), and it refers
directly to the defining criterion: freedom.

And while in the OSHWA we use the Open term predominantly, it is clear
that the four freedoms are the defining criterion for what this
"openness" really means :-) It is just in the first phrase of the
Statement of Principles: "... so that anyone can study, modify,
distribute, make, and sell the design or hardware based on that design".

In Hardware I am admittedly less strict with the terminology, but in
principle I prefer the Free Hardware Design term. And that's because I
care much more about freedom than openness ... freedom is the thing
revolutions are fought over. In our daily lives, freedom is both an
ethical as an pragmatical value. Open development is the logical
production methodology that helps us build knowledge as a commons. So we
really do need freedom AND openness.

Five years ago I wrote a blog post about the three terms Free / libre
and open (today I would add "shareable" and "commons-based") :

And in 2011 I made an overview post about hardware:

I do think that RMS in the Wired article made a quite nuanced statement
on the state of the art, that we don't need to reject non-free hardware
right now.

Just for the record on Richard Stallman writing about free hardware,
what I think was the the first time, in 1999. He then tried to apply the
concepts behind Free Software to hardware:"”free hardware” means
hardware that users are free to copy and modify; a ”free hardware
design” means a design that users are free to copy, modify, and convert
into hardware”.

best regards,


On 03/11/2015 08:57 PM, Drew Fustini wrote:
> hmm, just saw this on Slashdot:
> "Why We Need Free Digital Hardware Designs"
> http://hardware.slashdot.org/story/15/03/11/1648243/why-we-need-free-digital-hardware-designs
> Links to Wired:
> http://www.wired.com/2015/03/need-free-digital-hardware-designs/
> It appears to me that Richard Stallman wrote this article.
> Here is a quote:
> "the concept we really need is that of a free hardware design. That’s
> simple: it means a design that permits users to use the design (i.e.,
> fabricate hardware from it) and to copy and redistribute it, with or
> without changes. The design must provide the same four freedoms that
> define free software."
> I do like the philosophy behind it, but I am afraid the introduction
> of the term "Free Hardware" will increase confusion about hardware
> licensing.
> cheers,
> drew
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