Fake Open Source

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Levels of Openness

We have observed 6 levels of open source in our journey towards the open source economy:

  1. Open Source - meaning complying with the OSHWA Definition. The best-in-class example here is Lulzbot - which shares all of its CAD designs and production engineering in open formats.
  2. Ambiguous Open Source - it is ambiguous whether the OSHWA definition is met. The case in point here is Prusa - read more about Prusa Research
  3. Fake Open Source - pretending to be open source, but the license in not open - typically being non-commercial. Note that not all Creative Commons licenses are OSHWA Definition-compliant. According to this definition, the Peer Production License is fake open source.
  4. Effectively Fake Open Source - this is not necessarily a slander, but would apply to projects where full documentation is available to the OSHWA standard. However, if the build requires very expensive equipment or rare inputs that very few or no other people can access - then the design is effectively un-replicable - and from the standpoint of replicability - unreplicable open source. Which is effectively not open for replication. Thus, it is ambiguous whether the people who are offering the blueprints are really following a mindset of open culture - or they are simply being strategic.
  5. Strategic open source - this describes typical commercial open source projects - where it simply makes business sense to collaborate on a common core of open code. FB, Google, Microsoft, Amazon - and all the giants now understand that it is cheaper to create new products if they collaborate. These companies typically take the common core and build proprietary applications on top of that common code. So it may be said that open culture is not a prerequisite for strategic open source behavior.
  6. Ethical/Radical Open Source - this is Richard Stallman and the ethical position of libre. OSE endorses ethical open source, and for practical purposes of developing purely open source products - they are one and the same. The main distinction is that Stallman does not believe that open source applies to hardware (because hardware cannot be replicated easily like software) - and the FSF does not allow for mixing of closed and open content in one license. Mixing open source and proprietary is currently not possible for hardware - because our designs are open source - but we use many proprietary components for which there are no open source alternatives - YET. By 2028, OSE intends to use 100% open source components, as achieved by Technological Recursion.

Being clear about the level at which others are open source allows OSE to make sound decisions regarding collaboration potential. For OSE purposes - if collaborators are fully open source without bounds - such as Lulzbot as our posterchild - then it's a worthwhile relationship to pursue and that relationship creates clear and visible forward motion. If they are not, time is spent better collaborating with those people who are fully open source, because life is short - and there is no time for Competitive Waste. At the same time, we must be careful about Collaborative Waste.


Open Source is not a loose term, which in common parlance tends to be reduced in meaning to 'something cool.' Instead, Open Source is a technical term defined by the Open Source Initiative in its Open Source Definition.

From the perspective of open source ecology, fake open source refers to parties claiming or implying that their work is open source, as defined by the Open Source Hardware Definition, when in reality it is not. Fake open source does not apply to companies that were formerly open source but turned proprietary - as long as the proprietary company makes no claims of being open source. An example of the latter is Makerbot, which used to be open source, but has since declared itself to be proprietary - and is making no claims about being open source. Ie, Makerbot is a good bastard.

Open source claimed by someone as open source is not open source if:

  • First and foremost - If it restricts commercial use, such as by the NC Clause in Creative Commons licenses - it is not open source according to the OSHWA definition.
  • Note that making money provides a positive feedback loop for people to make livelihood based on open source. This is one of the 4 points that consistute the Open Source Definition. This right should not be abridged if we care about general human welfare. In practice, when someone uses open source there is a good chance that they will contribute to a project out of good will. Thus, people should be encouraged to participate by allowing them to use content for commercial purposes. Livelihood based on open source is a good thing. There are still many who will contribute to NC projects, but only in the capacity of a hobbyist - not one whose livelihood comes from participating. When you contribute to an NC enterprise, that enterprise is privatizing your public contribution.
  • There is no documentation. Someone could claim that they are open source as much as they want - but if they can't point you at a public repository where you can freely download documentation or design - their work is not open source.
  • Their design documentation consists of patents. Patents are already open source in that they are on the public record. However, patents do not show actual designs, they show mechanisms and concepts that are covered in the patent. Thus, if somene says they release all their patents as open source, if they do not make their actaul CAD files, technical drawings, etc, public- then they are not open source.
  • Someone tells you that their work is open source but there is no formal, written declaration - on the internet or elsewhere - that the work is open source. Stay away from such people due to legal risk. If you use their work and the author changes their mind, the legal liability lies on you to defend yourself from infringing on their license.
  • Someone tells you that their work will be open source. Whether or not it will be open source only time will tell, and for present purposes, it is not open source yet.


  • OpenROV - not open source, as it doesn't meet the OSHWA Definition as their hardware has the NC Clause.
  • Microsoft has an "Open Source" license for their proprietary flagship product, Windows. It reads, "Pay us USD 1m per year, and on receipt of your money, our source code is "open" to you. If however you do anything other than read it, we will sue you into the bedrock and jump up and down in the molten crater of your former existence". But The Source Is Open!
  • n55 - bicycle license is also NC
  • Tesla Motors - what does it mean that they are 'releasing their patents as open source?' Unless the designs are available under an OSHWA compliant license, they are not open source. Point: patents do not reveal the actual blueprints. However, we must give credit to Musk as his move is honorable. He promises not to sue anyone for using Tesla patents.
  • MPCNC - nice discussion at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=68ohaPYyiDA

Other Viewpoints

Alex Kennis