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The culture of open source: No copyrights, no patents

Image: Samuel Zeller

In name, the open source movement started in computing in the 1990s.

It was an effort to reawaken the mentality of early programmers, who would freely share their code with each other in order to learn more and to quickly make progress.

Open source software is released under a license giving users access to the basic building blocks of the software – its source code – and permitting them to use, make additions to, and redistribute it as long as they abide by certain conditions.

Similar ideas of open design and knowledge sharing were present in the 18th and 19th centuries, until patenting law was introduced to protect intellectual property. These days, people are becoming more and more interested in open design again, and the concept is spreading from software into other fields.

Open source hardware is hardware for which the plans and schematics on how to make the object are made available, often under a similar license to those of open source software.

With the advent of 3D printers, the possibilities have multiplied. For example, the book Open-Source Lab: How to Build Your Own Hardware and Reduce Research Costs by Joshua M. Pearce, published in 2014, details how to use open source hardware and 3D printing to create your own lab equipment.

This makes it easier for researchers to customise equipment and get exactly what they need, and is also a lot cheaper than pre-built lab tools.

Perhaps surprisingly, open source ideals have also transferred to architecture. This year, architect Alejandro Aravena has released the plans for some of his housing projects online for anyone who wishes to see or utilise them.

Aravena is also known for promoting collaborative design in housing projects, where a simplistic design can be altered, improved and added to by whoever wants to do so.

The website Paperhouses, created by Nick Dangerfield and Joana Pacheco, is another platform where house plans and pictures from a number of architects are shared under an open source license.

As the open source and open design movements keep spreading, the possibilities are endless. The web browser Mozilla Firefox, the operating system Linux, and the self-replicating 3D printer RepRap are all examples of projects that have been developed – and continue to be improved by a number of contributors – under open source licenses.

In the research community, improvements to lab equipment and cheaper ways to produce it are now being shared, giving scientists from developing countries cheap access to better equipment. In architecture, participatory design is being used both to provide affordable living spaces and to develop more climate-smart housing.

Open design provides a new type of framework for projects to be developed in, where co-operation across national borders is the norm, where projects too big for a single individual or company to tackle can be mastered over time by a larger community of people, and where it is easy for anyone to get involved in a new field because other people’s work is readily available to learn from and play around with.

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