OHANDA (http://www.ohanda.org/) — short for Open Hardware and Design Alliance — has proposed a system to “open source” hardware by taking the four freedoms from the software world and transferring them to the hardware world.
On a superficial level this is done by simply replacing the word “program” with the term(s) “device /& design” in the definition of the four freedoms. OHANDA acknowledges, that for devices there is no automatic IP protection (as there is with copyright for works of literature and arts).
The mechanism they propose to make hardware open is to “copyleft” any (potentially) copyrightable artifacts (such as drawings, documentation, embedded software etc.) and to register the hardware with OHANDA.
On top of that, they intend to position OHANDA as a “label” (they are actually thinking of a trademark) that designers (inventors) are allowed to use on their products if they agree to adhere to the four freedoms.
In this way, the technical invention will be publicized which prevents others from patenting the same invention. One challenge for OHANDA is certainly to gain sufficient visibility so it “appears” as an “alternative register” in the vetting processes for patent applications — and this in every country world-wide. This could be achieved by gaining momentum in various communities etc. Yet it is unclear how OHANDA would deal with mala fide patent applications for OHANDA-registered designs. Would it become party in fighting these … or would designers be left alone in fighting for themselves?
On the other hand, could OHANDA be held responsible for giving the “open” label to designs that later appear to be patented elsewhere? It would be quite a challenge, I think, is to establish some kind of corresponding vetting process at OHANDA itself. Crowd sourcing might be an answer to this initially. Yet I wonder if it is sufficiently scaleable if OHANDA grows.
It has been argued (Weitzmann, forthcoming) that the relatively high development costs of hardware (particularly because of expensive make infrastructure) would be an impediment to open sourcing hardware designs, while patents offer a commercial incentive. It will be interesting to see how e.g. the growing number and user base of Fab Labs can actually contribute to lowering production costs — as it happened for creative works.
In conclusion, I believe that OHANDA is an interesting approach for open sourcing hardware. There are a number of questions that need further consideration or explication. It provides a complementary approach to what is currently discussed at Creative Commons regarding opening already patented designs (see Creative Commons Patent Licences Anytime Soon?).