While open source software is mainly defined by usage rights, it seems, open source hardware is defined in large part by credit.
(Shown is an Adafruit starter kit, from Adafruit.com. Think of them as the Heathkit of the new age. If you're really clever you can be the Steve Jobs of open source hardware. Or at least the Ed Roberts.)
Of course, open source hardware as a class is nowhere near where software is. The effort spearheaded by Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson, Phil Torrone of Make, David Mellis of MIT Media Lab, Limor Fried of Adafruit and Ayah Bdeir of Eyebeam is only setting standards for what will become open source hardware licenses.
They're at the Tim O'Reilly, Eric Raymond, and Richard Stallman stage of open source. And perhaps in keeping with this the first Open Source Hardware Summit will be held September 23 at the New York Hall of Science on the grounds of the old World's Fair. (Mets game afterward optional -- I'm hoping the Braves will have clinched by then.)
As Daniel Terdiman notes over at CNET, this is well overdue, because open source hardware companies are actually starting to make some money.
The group acted in part because open source hardware has been moving in a FOSS direction. Right now someone could take a design from say, Adafruit, produce a clone, and Adafruit would see nothing from it.
The idea is that innovations should build communities, innovators should get credit, but that the innovations themselves should be available. Just as with open source.
Right now hardware is very much stuck at the patent office. People can't see something new, often, until the government has a copy and has begun the long drawn-out process of protecting the invention. The hope is that, with standards and eventually licenses, open source hardware can move more quickly.
It's a wonderful dream. Can it become reality?