Licenses to public policy in the context of open source hardware


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Saturday, 2015-09-19 I’m giving a talk on “Open Source Hardware and Developments in Creative Commmons Licenses, Compatibility, and Policy” (advance slides: pdf, slideshare) at the Open Hardware Summit (program). They published an interview with me earlier this month. Text I sent is pasted below; at the link there’s an intro and maybe some copyediting.

I’m filling in for Creative Commons, so there’s a focus in the talk on implications of version 4.0 of open Creative Commons licenses for open source hardware, and some plugs for CC efforts, including their global summit next month (preparations for being the reason they couldn’t send someone on staff).

But in the interview and talk I also draw attention to licenses as prototypes for public policy, and the need to make public policy, specifically open/commons-favoring public policy, not license politics or generic IP reform, the focus of movement politics, if ambitions are to be realized. I’ve been harping on this theme for years, indeed was in part motivated to set up this site in order to focus on it, but I still consider myself unconvincing and ignorant, so welcome opportunities to develop the theme and expose it to feedback. If I get anything interesting at the summit I’ll report back on it here.

A couple posts on this site explicitly about open hardware: Quantifying the Value of Open Source Hardware Development on a paper by Joshua Pearce (who is speaking at the summit on “Making Open Hardware the New Standard in Science”), and on the Open Compute Project.

Open Source Hardware and Developments in Creative Commons Licenses, Compatibility, and Policy from Mike Linksvayer

1. Would you tell us a bit more about the main project(s) you’re involved in, with Creative Commons, in the open source community, and/or in other areas?

I worked for Creative Commons 2003-2011 on all manner of projects but the last few years I’ve only been an advisor, primarily on CC’s version 4.0 licenses (released at the end of 2013) and increasing compatibility among certain CC and non-CC licenses (ongoing). I blogged my personal take on the CC 4.0 licenses, which includes a bit on compatibility and open hardware licensing.

I’m on the boards of Software Freedom Conservancy and OpenHatch.

Conservancy is a charitable non-profit organizational host for free/open source projects and also does GPL enforcement (currently we’re sponsoring a lawsuit against VMware http://sfconservancy.org/news/2015/mar/05/vmware-lawsuit/; my personal take on that) and education about the GPL and other copyleft licenses – my draft chapter about how CC-BY-SA for Conservancy’s copyleft.org site/book also makes mention of copyleft hardware licensing. Clearly copyleft hardware licensing merits a dedicated chapter; if anyone reading this is interested in contributing, collaborating on, or re-purposing existing material (under a CC-BY-SA compatible license!) to this project, please get in touch.

OpenHatch helps make it easier for newcomers to get involved in open source projects, including through hands-on workshops dubbed Open Source Comes to Campus.

I’m curious to learn about analogues to Conservancy and OpenHatch focused on open source hardware.

I’ll also mention only because there’s a direct analogue in the Open Source Hardware Definition that I help maintain the Open [Knowledge] Definition.

2. What are some interesting news and trends you are seeing in your field and in the Open Source Hardware community? What excites you or causes caution these days?

One trend – open source computing down to and including the bare metal and supporting infrastructure – is exactly where open source software and open source hardware fully converge. This isn’t a new idea, but the exciting thing to me is the emergence of projects which have a long-term but realistic shot at substantially opening huge commercial markets as open source software has for many kinds of infrastructure and developer software. I’m thinking particularly about RISC-V and the Open Compute Project.

What gives me caution is the lack of awareness of the risks exacerbated by non-open source software and hardware and lack of urgency and of adequate strategies for turning things around.

The risks are both technical and social, micro and macro. Consider backdoors in CPUs and routers, life-critical systems that can be remote disabled by criminals, states, and vendors, “smart city” functions mediated by sensors and software also subject to bad hacking, vendor holdup, and enabling algorithmic discrimination but not subject to public inspection or collaborative improvement by cities and citizens, non-reproducible science (both the exact hardware and software used is crucial), and increased inequality from allowing the most crucial infrastructure of the age to be be controlled and taxed by private parties.

The many achievements of open projects in various fields including hardware should be celebrated, but I don’t mistake these for progress relative to proprietary hardware, software, education, data, science, culture…there’s little reason to expect openness to win in the long term. Let me come back to this in the next answer…

3. What would be the impact of a wider adoption of the principles of Creative Commons and Open Source Hardware, or an open source approach in general, in society, business and public administration?

The impacts would be huge and systemic, but also hard to pin down. Huge and systemic because while the transition from an industrial to a knowledge society has been recognized for decades, its pace seems to be increasing, as illustrated by quips and phrases such as “software is eating the world” and “Internet of Things” and popular discourse about automation and artificial intelligence. It seems obvious (but I’d love to be convinced otherwise) that the structure of the knowledge economy and knowledge regulation (which very strongly influence each other) are and will increasingly impact a broad range of social outcomes.

To be flip, we should want software to feed the world and our things to be benevolent – and not just the software we directly use and things we have on or in our bodies and homes, but also the software and things around us, e.g., those which increasingly constitute the brains and operations of public institutions.

Broad implementation of open source principles can increase freedom, equality, and security simultaneously, each of which is often held to be in tension if not outright conflict with the others. Yochai Benkler in The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom (2006) and earlier papers (2002) observed along these lines that this is quite a political feat, an opportunity that would be a great shame to miss out on (my review). More recently Jeremy Rifkin in The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism (2014), Mark Lemley in Intellectual Property in a World Without Scarcity (2014; my review), and Paul Mason in PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future (2015) have written on the possibilities, frequently invoking open source 3D printing.

…but realizing these beneficent outcomes rather than more frequently imagined dystopian ones is going to require a lot more from open movements. Benkler (2002) nicely put what I think is part of the answer: “Regulators concerned with fostering innovation may better direct their efforts toward providing the institutional tools that would help thousands of people to collaborate without appropriating their joint product, making the information they produce freely available rather than spending their efforts to increase the scope and sophistication of the mechanisms for private appropriation of this public good as they now do.”

Open licenses as currently used for open source software, hardware, etc., are mostly viewed as the prerogative of creators, a matter of one or more of altruism, business strategy, or identity expression. These are undoubtedly necessary, but the sooner the political and ethical focus of open movements moves from these dwarfish forms and occasional defenses (also necessary; good on OSHWA; relatedly see filings from Conservancy on smart TVs, medical devices, and more) to convincing regulators that openness should be the perogative of the public and accordingly implemented as public policy, the better. There is an obvious transition: taking licenses as prototypes for public policy, and mandating their use, also as public policy. Some steps are being taken on the latter, e.g., for publicly funded educational materials (I deem supporting such efforts to be Creative Commons’ most important work) and public procurement of software. Again I’m very curious to learn about analogous efforts that identify with the open source hardware movement.

4. Which trends and themes in Open Hardware are you seeing in the last year and how will they impact people now and in the future?

I’m not embedded enough in the open source hardware community to usefully comment on trends specifically in the last year – I’m hoping to learn a lot at the summit! Hopefully the answers above give some sense of my thoughts on multi-year trends and future impact.

5. Any additional insights, URLs to share, etc.? Feel free to give us your thoughts!

Doubt everything I wrote above. I do.

You can find me on twitter though I use and appreciate an open alternative more.

Are open source hardware topics well documented in Wikipedia? WikiProject Open aims to improve articles on all things open, I suspect participation from the open hardware movement would be beneficial.

My last name is rare. If you search for it you’ll also find my brother, who studies ants at Penn (a nice coincidence for me that OHS is in Philadelphia).

I look forward to talking about pertinent open licensing and open policy developments at OHS, but mostly to learning a lot from other summit attendees!