How to Make Hardware Designs Free

How to Make Hardware Designs Free
by Richard Stallman

We must design free hardware. But the question remains: how?

First, we must understand why we can’t make hardware free the same way we make software free. Hardware and software are fundamentally different. A program, even in compiled executable form, is a collection of data which can be interpreted as instruction for a computer. Like any other digital work, it can be copied and changed using a computer. A copy of a program has no inherent physical form or embodiment.

By contrast, hardware is a physical structure and its physicality is crucial. While the hardware’s design might be represented as data, in some cases even as a program, the design is not the hardware. A design for a CPU can’t execute a program. You won’t get very far trying to type on a design for a keyboard or display pixels on a design for a screen.

Furthermore, while you can use a computer to modify or copy the hardware design, a computer can’t convert the design into the physical structure it describes. That requires fabrication equipment.

Levels of design
Software has levels of implementation; a package might include libraries, commands and scripts, for instance. But these levels don’t make a significant difference for software freedom because it is
feasible to make all the levels free. Designing components of a program is the same sort of work as designing the code that combines them; likewise, building the components from source is the same sort
of operation as building the combined program from source. To make the whole thing free simply requires continuing the work until we have done the whole job.

Therefore, we insist that a program be free at all levels. For a program to qualify as free, every line of the source code that composes it must be free, so that you can rebuild the program out of free source code alone.

Physical objects, by contrast, are often built out of components that are designed and built in a different kind of factory. For instance, a computer is made from chips, but designing (or fabricating) chips is very different from designing (or fabricating) the computer out of chips.

Thus, we need to distinguish levels in the design of a digital product (and maybe some other kinds of products). The circuit that connects the chips is one level; each chip’s design is another
level. In an FPGA, the interconnection of primitive cells is one level, while the primitive cells themselves are another level. In the ideal future we will want the design be free at all levels. Under present circumstances, just making one level free is a significant advance.

However, if a design at one level combines free and nonfree parts — for example, a “free” HDL circuit that incorporates proprietary “soft cores” — we must conclude that the design as a whole is nonfree at that level. Likewise for nonfree “wizards” or “macros,” if they specify part of the interconnections of chips or programmably connected parts of chips. The free parts may be a step towards the future goal of a free design, but reaching that goal entails replacing the nonfree parts. They can never be admissible in the free world.

Licenses and copyright for free hardware designs
You make a hardware design free by releasing it under a free license. We recommend using the GNU General Public License, version 3 or later. We designed GPL version 3 with a view to such use.

Copyleft on circuits, and on nondecorative object shapes, doesn’t go as far as one might suppose. The copyright on these designs only applies to the way the design is drawn or written. Copyleft is a way of using copyright law, so its effect carries only as far as copyright law carries.

For instance, a circuit, as a topology, cannot be copyrighted (and therefore cannot be copylefted). Definitions of circuits written in HDL can be copyrighted (and therefore copylefted), but the copyleft covers only the details of expression of the HDL code, not the circuit topology it generates. Likewise, a drawing or layout of a circuit can be copyrighted, so it can be copylefted, but this only covers the drawing or layout, not the circuit topology. Anyone can legally draw the same circuit topology in a different-looking way, or write a different HDL definition that produces the same circuit.

Copyright doesn’t cover physical circuits, so when people build instances of the circuit, the design’s license will have no legal effect on what they do with the devices they have built.

For drawings of objects, and 3-D printer models, copyright doesn’t cover making a different drawing of the same purely functional object shape. It also doesn’t cover the functional physical objects made from the drawing. As far as copyright is concerned, everyone is free to make them and use them (and that’s a freedom we need very much). In the US, copyright does not cover the functional aspects that the design describes, but does cover decorative aspects. When one object has decorative aspects and functional aspects, you get into tricky ground (*).

All this may be true in your country as well, or it may not. Before producing objects commercially or in quantity, you should consult a local lawyer. Copyright is not the only issue you need to be concerned with. You might be attacked using patents, most likely held by entities that had nothing to do with making the design you’re using, and there may be other legal issues as well.

Keep in mind that copyright law and patent law are totally different. It is a mistake to suppose that they have anything in common. This is why the term “intellectual property” is pure confusion and should be totally rejected.

  • An article by Public Knowledge gives useful information about this complexity for the US, though it uses the confused term “intellectual property” and the biased term “protection”.

Promoting free hardware through repositories
The most effective way to push for published hardware designs to be free is through rules in the repositories where they are published. Repository operators should place the freedom of the people who will use the designs above the preferences of people who make the designs. This means requiring designs of useful objects to be free, as a condition for posting them.

For decorative objects, that argument does not apply, so we don’t have to insist they must be free. However, we should insist that they be sharable. Thus, a repository that handles both decorative object models and functional ones should have an appropriate license policy for each category. (For digital designs, I suggest that the repository insist on GNU GPL v3-or-later. For functional 3-D designs, the repository should ask the design’s author to choose one of four licenses: GNU GPL v3-or-later, CC-SA, CC-BY or CC-0. For decorative designs, it should allow any of the CC licenses, or GNU GPL v3-or-later.)

The repository should require all designs to be published as source code, and source code in secret formats usable only by proprietary design programs is not really adequate. For a 3-D model, the STL format is not the preferred format for changing the design and thus is not source code, so the repository should not accept it, except perhaps accompanying real source code.

There is no reason to choose one single format for the source code of hardware designs, but source formats that cannot yet be handled with free software should be accepted reluctantly at best.

We already have suitable licenses to make our hardware designs free. What we need is to recognize as a community that this is what we should do and to insist on free designs when we fabricate objects ourselves.

Copyright 2015 Richard Stallman. Released under Creative Commons Attribution No Derivatives 3.0 license.

Dr. Richard Stallman launched the free software movement in 1983 and started the development of the GNU operating system in 1984. GNU is free software: everyone is free to copy it and redistribute it, with or without changes. The GNU/Linux system is used on tens of millions of computers today.

Hardware will never be free, that’s why it’s called “hard” ware, it uses a finite supply of raw materials(add labor).

IMO, the only reason we can get away with giving out free software is because it’s a “soft” good, the materials involved in it’s creation are more abstract, easily copied, easily distributed etc. But even at that, time and effort in the creation of the software plays a huge role in determining it’s value. Just because it’s “soft” ware doesn’t mean it has any less value than hardware and should be given away for free. Ask any CAD company if they would mind giving their software away for free.

Free is great, sometimes it’s unrealistic though. I’m curious how a company would secure funding if at the investor meeting if they told investors they were planning to not pay employees and give everything away for free… lol.

At my university I run into a similar issues. I like to design equipment that is composed of many parts that are already non-proprietary–also know as off the shelf. Basically I create stuff that isn’t patentable and the university lawyers always freak out about how they are going to protect their “IP”. I don’t really care because all I see patents and copyrights doing is smothering the small startup company. Think of how many foreign companies are out there importing products that violate someone’s “IP”. What Makita does to Milwaukee and Dewalt tools is the best example I have off the top of my head–I also own a fair amount of Makita stuff.

What keeps the average person from not building a TAZ from their own sourced products? I would venture to say time, effort, and support.
What keeps Makerbot/Stratasys from incorporating TAZ components or functionality into their product line? No idea.

It’s a tough world out there for sure, thanks for making it a little easier LulzBot.

Lulzbot basically built their empire around offering people VALUE in terms of time savings, ie all the parts are sourced already, discounts from being a company, which can then be passed on to the consumer, offering an amazing community, unprecedented support etc. etc. Basically all the company value comes from everything BUT their product. Obviously they’re great printers but just saying from a technical standpoint.
I admire this so much and I think it is SOOOO cool and revolutionary. They’ve taken their design, made it not only free but free for others to use to build a business with, YET still turn a profit and have growth as a company etc. etc.
it’s sort of a like a big fat FU to the patent industry :slight_smile:. Ya gotta love that.

Patents have their place though IMO, they help create business and competition, offer protection to those that deserve it in some cases. But I think the system get’s abused. Also, the problem is that no one ever looked into the future and thought that wow, one day there will be 7, 8 9 billion people in the world, all with similar ideas, how are we going to regulate that??? It’s sort of a big joke now. Such similar things can get patented now, the rules are always changing. You need a law degree or a hired lawyer just to interpret the claims. It’s just a big mess. But I still can’t knock the system completely, it does have it’s merits.

the intriguing part about doing a fully open source hardware project is…not just:

“what keeps the average person from not building a Taz from their own sourced products”…

but why hasn’t some larger company with lot’s of spare capital just mooched off of Lulzbot’s work and started selling “stratysis” or “joe blow” branded Taz’s in large quantities…etc. Does it speak to the morality of the business community, no one want’s to mooch off of free-ware? or is it just a matter of time… that’s what would keep me up at night by going full open source.

but anyhoo, back to the thread topic… Open source free hardware = not going to happen, now if by some chance, we find a commet flying by with a billion pounds of aluminum on it, we’re able to mine it, therefore bringing the cost of aluminum down to zero, then let me assure you, I will be THE biggest proponent of open source hardware. I’ll be the first in line to get my free 3D printer, dirt bike, frying pan…drill press… :wink:

jonathanb, you are confusing free as in price with free as in speech. Stallman is typically referring to “free as in freedom”, or “think free speech, not free beer”.

Free software = free speech, not free price.

The concept has to do with the (re-)usability of ideas, it has nothing to do with prices.


I still cannot understand how open-source, has seemed to stay clear from the patent-trolls… :confused:
My only guess is that there probably isn’t enough money to be gained from cratering a company and why the trolls stay away… Then there’s always that “damn the BIG/successful” mentality of many, and they leave the smaller guys alone…

I really like the open-ness of LulzBot, and I would love to see their stuff expand…

But one of the many issues of going open-source, is that it’s nearly impossible and costly to get out of, and go full in house… As in, it’s most probable that one day, the doors will have to close…

Being “open source” doesn’t prevent patent trolls, but we haven’t been hit yet. We have been hit by plenty of other forms of trolls though. :wink: We are under paid attacks, actually, and in at least one case we know who it is.

I see no reason why we would have to close our doors due to open source. The mentality is a bit confusing. There are plenty of successful open source software enterprises, including some that are multi-BILLION. There’s also plenty of successful open hardware companies, such as Sparkfun. Granted there aren’t as many, as it is a new field, but it is certainly growing massively, and will continue to grow.

I want to be a professional troll. That sounds fun!

/posts a “Will forum troll for fillament!” sign.

Have you read The Gentleperson’s Guide To Forum Spies? It’s a “fake leak” but has lots of info on how disruptors work. How many can you spot? :wink:


I used to be a forum admin for a fairly large and well known online gaming forum back in the day, until budget cuts occured, etc. I was always amazed at the lengths people would go to make sockpuppet accounts, only to get them nuked from orbit because they forgot the little details. Those 200 individually named and personified accounts they went to the trouble of making won’t do them a bit of good if they created them all within 3 minutes of another using a script and a similar sounding e-mail address. Or the people that thought they knew how to use a proxy server but didn’t. All sorts of hilarious hijinx. If people would just pay attention to the little details and take the time to build their credibility before they start in on that kind of thing, they would be so much better at it. Of course most of the ones in the gaming forums that did that were just doing it to be jerks rather than to upset buisinesses, so maybe the professional ones put more effort into it?

I never did figure out what any of the kitchen remodeling idiots from Europe who were actually a front for some guy in India were actually trying to accomplish though.

great post jebba. :wink:

Apparently 4chan refugees think about osh too

I think for starters like me in 3d printing, it should be ok to make hardware designs for free. But for all those who have experiences already and can do good advice then they cannot make anything for free.

For me it’s kinda strange to think that hardware can be free. I mean if one creates software, he spends resources once you developing it, after it has been created you can sell it copies unlimited times. But when one creates hardware, he has to spend resources to make each copy of hardware.