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OSHWA’s Certification: A Stable Opinion On Open Source Hardware

At the last OSHWA hangout I got to talk to the team about the Certification project and they helped me understand the benefits. I still don’t think an Open Source Hardware Certification is all that relevant to the existing community. I also don’t think the existing community needs much help to keep on keeping on. However, I think it’s important to expand the community and that’s where the Certification will help.

I want to see mega corporations like Intel start releasing open source chips. I want to see foundations start handing out grants to open source hardware projects. I want to see government contracts require compliance with open source hardware standards. I want to see the OSHW community gain footholds in regulation-heavy fields like automotive and aerospace engineering.

We’ve only barely scratched the surface of what OSHW norms can do to help the world. we need more and larger organizations to adopt the norms we’ve settled on. A Certification will provide an on-ramp to those organizations who haven’t been a part of the conversation before.

I think it’s safe to say that the primary topic in the conversation is when “open source hardware” gets used in marketing efforts, despite the project not actually being open source hardware. Then, there’s the follow up conversation where people get upset at the project’s owners. A verifiable standard, that’s at least a little bit enforceable, will go a long way towards maintaining the good will that the phrase “open source hardware” still has.

OSHW already depends on a social contract anyway. The plans for the hardware can have an open source license which leverages copyright for enforcement, but that’s only partly relevant in hardware. Technically the idea itself can be patented, but it’s so expensive and unreliable that nobody seems to be doing it. Names can be tradmarked, but that’s about the business not the hardware. It’s mostly a free-for-all where anyone can claim anything and just see if they get away with it or not. Having an organization establish an actual contract, where anyone who wants to rise above the free-for-all has to agree to abide by enforcement actions, seems like a positive addition to the community. It doesn’t alter any of the existing norms or options, and it doesn’t preclude any alternative standards, it just provides a more professional option.

So, basically, OSHWA’s Certification would just be a stable opinion on what “open source hardware” means. The stability of the opinion would be ensured by agreeing to let OSHWA correct us if we get it wrong. If anyone, or everyone, doesn’t want to agree to that, then nothing changes, we can just continue using the phrase “open source hardware” any way we want. If we do want the benefit of the stability all we have to do is self-register. That seems like the lowest possible barrier to entry and maximum opportunity.

With an optional, stable opinion we can make it clear what new entrants need to do to join the open source hardware community. They can just jump into the free-for-all like anyone else, but few organizations are going to be comfortable with that option. Instead they’ll have a list that defines the minimums and a reassurance that the list isn’t going to change or be diluted by bad actors.

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