Breathe In, Breathe Out: How open hardware licensing can help save the world
The recent global outbreak of coronavirus disease COVID-19 has been making the headlines for weeks and has had an enormous impact on our lives, as well as on global economy. Amongst others, it has emphasised vulnerability of our society to natural causes, leaving potentially hundreds of thousands of casualties. One reason for this vulnerability has been mentioned more than the others: the lack of medical equipment. Although attention has mostly been paid to insufficient supplies of protective equipment, it is no secret that hospitals lack intensive care units and ventilators to aid critically ill patients. At the beginning of April 2020, the situation is expected to worsen over the coming months. Alarmingly, this scenario can be witnessed in real time across a number of developed countries with sufficient resources to access the necessary equipment. Unfortunately, less developed countries are expected to be severely hit by the pandemic as they lack resources to manufacture or purchase this equipment.
In 2010, a group of students from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Boston University designed and prototyped a low-cost portable mechanical ventilator that would help treat respiratory diseases, such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, in less developed countries. Although ventilators for artificial respiration have become commonplace in hospitals across many developed countries, they are provided at a cost of up to $30,000, with an equally high level of technological complexity. In their project, the students therefore set their sights on maintaining the medical function of the ventilator, whilst reducing its price and making it easier to build. As a result, they developed a prototype whose bulk-manufacturing price was estimated to less than $200. Had the project been appropriately licensed and the ventilator began to be manufactured, it could have surpassed a great deal of similar projects and started helping doctors around the world saving lives of patients suffering from respiratory diseases, including from the recent outbreak of coronavirus disease COVID-19.
After 10 years of silence, the students have recently announced that they will make their material publicly available to help to find the solution to the global lack of ventilators in the COVID-19 pandemic. At Moorcrofts, we have seen this as a unique opportunity to study the project and see how it (and society as a whole, as a result) could benefit from being licensed under the recently published version 2 of CERN Open Hardware Licence which Andrew Katz, Partner and Head of Technology Law, has been working on with CERN.
In their paper published in the Journal of Open Law, Technology & Society, Andrew Katz and Jiri Svorc take the ventilator example to consider the effect of the application of the three different variants of the newly-released CERN Open Hardware Licence Version 2. They also consider the importance of licensing in general, and demonstrate how open hardware licensing can facilitate efficient further development of the project, improve its safety and reliability, and encourage collaboration. Most importantly, open hardware licensing allows anyone to freely use, study, modify and distribute improvements to project design, and make, sell or otherwise distribute products made to that design, making it a cost-effective means of developing and deploying the device throughout the world, from the developed to the developing world. Finally, the paper argues that open hardware licensing also encourages economic activity.
We are aware of and continue monitoring the situation as it unfolds. Although the ventilator project has recently received considerable attention, there are numerous similar projects under development and testing. While our analysis focuses on one of them, its findings and recommendations are universally applicable to any mechanical project beyond these challenging times.
For more information, please contact Andrew Katz.
Image of the E-Vent by MD and copyright (c) 2020 MIT E-Vent
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