This paper analyzes ways in which an open source model of software development might be applied to nanotechnology research and development, particularly bottom-up approaches to molecular assembly as outlined by Drexler (1986). The first section reviews relevant principles of open source software development (Raymond 1999) including the economics of software, individual incentives in a gift culture of programmers, and the commercial rationales for creating software as a producer good.
Nanotechnology would rely on software-based designs for controlling construction of desired products, making matter like software (Ellenbogen 1997). Most of the principles underlying open source software seem directly relevant to nanotechnology research and development. Use of molecular modeling software offers an example of how open source type practices are already being practiced in the nanoscience community, and a pathway by which open source approaches could be further expanded.
Choice of open source or proprietary business models will be affected by the opportunities for profiting from rents on intellectual property, or from providing associated products and services. Access to software code may be influenced by safety and other design concerns (different access to different levels, or perhaps a Java-type "sandbox" model). The feasibility of creating a vigorous open source community may be influenced by the availability of hardware for building and testing nanodesigns, whether reliant on "batch" processing in centralized facilities or through decentralized "homebrew" methods.
Various measures might be taken to promote open sourcing of nanotechnology. Public licensing models could be formulated for nanotechnology research and development, to offer options for making intellectual property available in ways that encourage development of a community of contributors. A framework and route map could be formulated for the intellectual infrastructure of standards, interfaces, modules, etc.. Sharing of modeling software could be promoted as a practical initial step to develop better tools for the nanotechnology community. Open sourcing of nanotechnology could benefit from first mover advantages, and integrate safety considerations into design, building on and contributing to current nanoscience.
Open source approaches could promote both the advance of scientific knowledge, and productive collaboration among individuals and enterprises with shared interests in better tools and standards. The paper concludes that applying open source approaches to nanotechnology could result in more innovative, reliable, and accessible research and development of nanotechnology.