From Bits to Atoms: Does the Open Source Software Model Translate to Open Source Hardware?


Many believe that open source innovation works “faster, better and cheaper” than conventional, proprietary innovation. The success of open source innovation has been seen primarily in open source software (OSS), whose output is an intangible, digital product (bits). This paper asks whether the success of OSS can be replicated in an open source hardware (OSH) environment, where the output is a tangible product (atoms). Specifically, it considers whether the tangible nature of OSH products presents legal or practical obstacles to their successful commercial implementation.

Open source community innovation has been extremely successful due to the number of contributors and the speed of innovation. It brings together large numbers of individuals who collaborate and use their minds in solving specific problems. This innovation process tends to occur at higher speeds and generate better performance than most proprietary innovation.

During its relatively short existence, open source community innovation has grown from software to other information products, such as Wikipedia, video journalism, and open science. More recently it has expanded beyond pure information products into the realm of tangibles. “Open source hardware” (OSH) uses the same innovation mechanism as OSS, but its final product is a physical three dimensional artifact. Products of the OSH process include electronic devices, medical prosthetics, diagnostic equipment, musical equipment, power supply, lab equipment, toys and games, 1LOCAL MOTORS, (last visited Nov. 5, 2018) (vehicles); OPEN SOURCE ECOLOGY, (last visited Nov. 5, 2018) (agricultural implements); ALEPH OBJECTS, INC. 3D PRINTER (3D printers); ARDUINO, (last visited Nov. 5, 2018) (circuit boards). etc. Because of its fairly incipient state of development, OSH presents the researcher with a fertile petri dish of unsolved questions at the intersection of law, economics, business, and sociology, which raise cross-disciplinary issues, such as appropriability of knowledge, ability to capture value absent IP rights and the relation between an inventive open community and a commercial operator.