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The license is the license

Saar Drimer

In January 2014 I explained why I wouldn't be using the Open Source Hardware Logo on my boards in the future. Since then, unless a client wanted it on there, I ditched it completely.

If I recall, I got the impression at the time that people thought that I was a crank for having that opinion, but in light of the recent "Open Source Hardware Certification" initiative by the Open Source Hardware Association, I know that I was right to distance myself from being associated with that brand.

I feel that the "certification" proposal is misguided and pointless on many levels, and I find it hard to reconcile how otherwise well-meaning people have not realised this and scrapped the notion at conception.

Let's have a look. The proposal lists its primary goals

Make it easier for the public to identify open source hardware.

I assume that the 'public' are those who are not within the small community of people who already know how to check if a product is genuinely open source. I think that the OSHWA fails to appreciate two things here. Firstly, that the 'public' doesn't really care; it's nearly always the vocal voices within the OSHW community who complain -- rightfully on most accounts -- about the mislabelling and abuse of their view of OSHW. Secondly, that it is nearly impossible to educate the 'public' for brand awareness without massive amounts of money, particularly given the first point.

So, ultimately, there's no demand and no means for "certification".

Expand the reach of open hardware by making it easier for newer members to join the open source hardware community.

This should be obvious, but you join the community simply by creating open-source hardware, not by being "certified" by self-proclaimed guardians of the practice, OSHWA or whoever else. I can't see any of this making it 'easier' anyway, quite the opposite -- any practical person would just not bother.

Since the basis of this initiative is flawed, the rest of the arguments in the proposal fall apart. But the OSHWA takes it a step further by assuming the role of an OSHW enforcer.

Users will self-certify compliance in order to use the certification logos. In doing so, they will submit to oversight and enforcement by OSHWA.

(This sound more like checking into a Big-Brother establishment for life than to the luxury beach hotel this concept is made out to seem.)

And,

Bringing the alleged failure to comply to the attention of the responsible party and giving the responsible party an opportunity to respond and/or correct
A second attempt to contact the responsible party to structure a path towards compliance
Public listing of the non-compliant project or product on the OSHWA website
Monthly fines not to exceed $500 per month
Monthly fines not to exceed $1,000 per month
Monthly fines not to exceed $10,000 per month

The expectation is that for apparently little practical benefit one would voluntarily submit to fines being levied on them if someone decided that they do not comply with their rules. Again, there are two problems here. Firstly, no reasonable person would accept these terms without a significant benefit (USB and BTLE certification, for example, actually provides a crucial technology -- there are no parallels here). Secondly, there is no practical way to enforce these fines worldwide. So the scheme will either fail because no one would buy into it, or fail because there will be no way to prevent abuse of the brand.

There's no doubt in my mind that the people behind these ideas mean well.  I feel, however, that the motivation is less to do with concern for the 'community' and 'public' and more to do with reconciling the individual enthusiasm for open source hardware with the reality of people <del>benefiting</del> profiting commercially from your own work, which was given away gratis. It's a rotten feeling when that happens, but that's part of the deal. The licence is the license. If the realities of the license chosen are unbearable, then a different license should be used, or a different business/benefit-model be used. One can't both claim OSHW and then be picky about how it's being used.

OK, so I've let off some steam. Here's what I recommend for the OSHWA to actually do with the energy and enthusiasm they have after scrapping this certification idea. Create a place where the 'public' and 'community' can be easily educated about the signs of a genuine OSHW project, and its benefits. Provide a service for crowdfunding platforms and companies -- maybe even charge a fee -- for producing a report on products' 'openness'. Take the role of educators and enablers -- rather than be the 'enforcers' of 'compliance' violations by 'bad actors' -- and gain authority that way instead.