Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Open source hardware and the future of IP

Wired has an excellent, in depth article up about open source hardware. Open source software has changed the software business (the web has, in the last few decades, been very much run on open source software), but the leap from free intellectual property in terms of infinitely and freely replicable software to open source hardware (essentially, hardware without the patent) is a little too much for most people to make, conceptually speaking. But even though you've never heard of it, this article has convinced me that it's real, happening, and going to be a big deal. It seems that the catalyst is cheap, scalable, and increasingly nimble manufacturing operations in East Asia, who make going from plans to device a much easier task than it once was.

The idea has rammifications for the world of patents, especially on things (like hardware) that have traditionally had high R&D costs but relatively low per-unit costs – specifically, medicine. I think it's only a matter of time (and regulatory upheaval) before medicine is created using this decentralized, open source method, and finally developing countries won't have to choose between free trade and the ability to "pirate" Western medicine. The article does delve into the development issue, in discussing the transformative effects of low-cost, open source hardware for developing nations. Given that the world's very poor often spend very high percentages of their income on technology, easing its cost could be a highly effective development mechanism.

I'd quote from the article, but every word is so compelling that I couldn't choose a section to excerpt. Just read it, for your own good.

(Sorry about the drop-off in posts – I've been pretty sick since Sunday morning.)

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