About FreeIO

Who are we?

FreeIO.org is a website dedicated to the cooperative development of free hardware designs, and drivers for them. There is no official organization. There are no papers of incorporation. There are no buildings. There is no paid staff. There is no bank account. FreeIO.org has no assets of its own. There are only volunteers, working on their own time, with their own equipment, and those volunteers can be anywhere, in any country. FreeIO.org was originally conceived of and created by Diehl Martin in March of 2000. Before his death in 2007, he passed the site on to Steve Rainwater (aka steevithak) with hopes of keeping his free hardware ideals alive.

What is Free Hardware?

A Free hardware design is the design and public release of useful physical building blocks or devices, in the forms of documentation, schematics, printed wiring board layouts, programmable logic implementations, and software drivers for them, as both source code and more immediately usable forms. The released elements must be under a license that provides the user with the freedoms to examine, use, distribute, and modify the design for any purpose (including commercial purposes). The term copyleft is sometimes applied to this concept, where the licensing is designed specifically to keep the original design and any descendants which flow from it available to help the common good. For a more complete explanation of the concept and its implementation, see the Free Software Foundation website.

Note that it is also common to refer to this concept as “Open Hardware” in the same way that some refer to Free Software as “Open Source Software”. This difference created a political division between Free Software and Open Source Software because the two movement were sometimes at cross purposes. The “open” group often ignore user freedom, which was the essential element of the “free” group. Fortunately the distinction is less fraught with politics when it comes to hardware. Both the free hardware and open hardware groups agree on the four basic freedoms as originally defined by the Free Software Foundation, so the terms can be used more or less interchangeably when it comes to hardware. Nevertheless we prefer to emphasize the importance of protecting the user’s freedoms, and continue to use the original name for the concept, “Free Hardware”.

Why is this called Free? The hardware still costs money!

Free in this context refers to freedom not cost. The usual analogy is “free speech” (freedom) vs “free beer” (no cost). You have the freedom to build upon any design or implementation you find here, as long as you release your designs and implementations under the same license. There is a potential for cost reduction in that FreeIO.org does not ask for a payment or royalty to use our designs. However, any improvements to the designs or designs which incorporate any part of our designs must also be released under identical terms. See the GNU General Public License for details.

What freedoms does Free Hardware give me?

The Free Hardware Definition
“Free hardware” means hardware that respects users’ freedom and community. Roughly, the users have the freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the hardware. With these freedoms, the users (both individually and collectively) control the hardware and what it does for them.

Hardware is “free hardware” if the users have these four essential freedoms:

  • The freedom to use the hardware, for any purpose (freedom 0)
  • The freedom to study how the hardware works, and change it to work as you wish (freedom 1), open design is precondition for this
  • The freedom to redistribute copies of the design or hardware so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2)
  • The freedom to distribute copies your modified versions of the design or hardware to others (freedom 3), open design is a precondition for this

As you may notice, these basic hardware freedoms are based directly on the Free Software Foundation’s Free Software Definition.

The various Open Source Hardware groups provide similar definitions that likewise require licenses to protect the four basic user freedoms. You can find details on the respective websites, such as the Open Hardware Organization or the more recent Open Source Hardware Association.

What is Free Software?

Free software is free, not because it may cost you little or nothing, but rather because it protects the freedom of everyone to use it, in just about any useful way. You may learn from it, further develop it, use its techniques on your own projects, keep it, give it away, install it on as many systems as you like, publish it on the web for others to use, and tell the world exactly what you think of it. It is software that protects the freedoms of the user. In order to maintain such freedom, the software needs to be protected under a special license such as the GNU General Public License. All of the source code on this site is released under the GNU General Public License.

Much software development that we see today is based on the premise that the programs are the exclusive chattel of a few major corporations. The programs have restrictive licenses which commonly state that you may only use the program as the major corporation sees fit, and that although you paid good money for it, that you do not own it. You cannot copy it. You cannot install it on more than one computer. You cannot reverse engineer it. You cannot transfer it to anyone else. And most of all, you may not require that the major corporations program actually does what it is supposed to do. You have no recourse. You paid for it, but do not own it, and now you are stuck with it. Oh, and by the way, you may end up in court if you should dare to tell the world that it doesn’t work as claimed, since that agreement states that you may not review their product without the specific written permission of the major corporation. I see no freedom here!

To learn more about free software, visit the Free Software Foundation

What is this site for?

There are three primary reasons for this site: 1. The first and best reason is to publicize our efforts, and to encourage volunteers to help out here or in other similar projects; 2. The second reason is to coordinate development efforts of ongoing projects; 3. The third reason is to release designs to the community for use.

How can I help financially?

We do not accept money. If you are inclined to give, please support the Free Software Foundation and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. However, if you see that we are not publishing our intermediate or final results using your preferred parts, or in your favorite CAD system format, or drivers for your preferred operating system, it is quite possible that we do not have access to that tool set. The volunteers use what they have available. If you can legally provide long-term access to something we do not collectively have, it might help.

Here is a specific example: One of the volunteers has access to the Lattice/Vantis is EXPERT with Synplicity (base package) for our VHDL development. Thus all of our designs use Lattice/Vantis parts. Without access to the tools from other CPLD/FPGA vendors, we will continue to use only the Lattice/Vantis parts. Lattice was gracious enough to place the VHDL tools with him. If you are in a position to provide legal access to other tools, please let us know.