by R. Steven Rainwater
Did you know that there are community-developed designs for robots
that are freely licensed, allowing you to download those designs as a
starting point for building your own robot?
To understand the idea of free hardware (or open hardware if you prefer), it’s helpful to quickly review the history of the free software movement. Most of us are familiar with the concept of free software as passed on to us by its creator, Richard Stallman, who
also started the Free Software Foundation. It’s the idea
that software should be released under a license, known
as the General Public License or GPL, that protects what
are known as the “four essential freedoms” of end users:
1. The freedom to run the program for any purpose
(including commercial purposes).
2. The freedom to study how the program works, and
change it so it does your computing as you wish. Access to
the source code is a precondition for this.
3. The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help
your neighbor (at no cost or for a fee).
4. The freedom to distribute copies of your modified
versions to others, so that the whole community benefits
from your changes. Access to the source code is a
precondition for this.
What this means in practice is that software can be
developed, shared, and improved by a community of users.
The software slowly but surely improves over time — even if
the original individual or company that started it abandons
the project. Others can continue the project or “fork” it
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(create a new project derived from the first).
The idea of free software requires — among other
things — that the source code be openly available to
anyone. This idea of “open” source code lead some clever
marketing types to invent the name “open source” to
market the free software idea to business — sans any
mention of user freedom — which they feared would scare
businesses, whose business models often rely on restricting
user freedoms. This attempt to use the term open source
to slightly redefine the underlying principles of free
software lead to ongoing political struggles between
advocates of each camp. However, both advocated similar
things for slightly different reasons.
Over time, an uneasy truce was reached and the
combined concepts are now commonly known as FLOSS
(Free/Libre/Open Source Software). The FLOSS movement
revolutionized our ideas about software. Odds are good
that you use and rely on FLOSS every day, whether you
realize it or not. Computers ranging from the fastest
supercomputers down to most smartphones rely on free
software as do most of the computers that make up the
The success of FLOSS resulted in the application of
those same concepts of freedom and openness to artistic
endeavors in the form of the Creative Commons
organization and its two free licenses, known as the
attribution (BY) and share-alike (SA) licenses. So far,
everything we’ve talked about is information; ones and