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Free and open-source hardware refers not so much to the manufactured devices, but to the design specifications, including mechanical drawings, schematics, layout data, associated software source codes, and so on.

Source codes for open hardware should be readily accessible, and its components are easily obtainable. Users with access to the design specifications and source codes can update and improve the code, as well as modify the design of the device or object, and share their results. Free and open-source hardware licenses permit others to obtain and study these designs, redistribute them, modify them, and then distribute the modifications, whether for free or for sale.

Similar to software, hardware designs are subject to copyright and patent protection laws. As with open-source software, open-source hardware creators use these laws to make their designs publicly accessible. Some free and open-source hardware projects use existing software licenses, while others opt to use the Creative Commons by Attribution licenses, some of which were designed to protect works of art.

Unlike proprietary hardware, open-source hardware has to be accompanied by documentation, including the design files and the source codes of any software that might be incorporated into the design. Additionally, the license that governs the hardware must allow for the modification and distribution of these design files. In projects for which there is interest, this encourages and speeds up the process of troubleshooting and improving the hardware design.

Use of free and open-source software has increased greatly in recent years, including its use by governmental bodies, organizations, and businesses. While still within the fringe, the use of free and open-source hardware is also blossoming.

As technology advances more and more electronics and other gadgets are being locked down by licenses and warranties that restrict what end users can do with the things that they have purchased, sometimes even to the point where minor problems can be fixed only by people authorized by the manufacturer or license holder. Largely, this is because more gadgets are digitized than in the recent past, and proprietary copyrights prevent users from making any changes to the software that powers the hardware.

We can see this in the cars that we drive today. Frequently now, we encounter problems that can only be repaired by an authorized dealer.

While dependent upon proprietary hardware, businesses have to adjust to the hardware's capabilities rather than adjusting the hardware so that it meets the needs of the company that purchased it.

That problem is alleviated through free and open-source hardware because in-house technicians are free to view the design documentation, including any applicable source codes, and to modify the equipment to meet the specific needs of the company.

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