Open Hardware Licenses
Open Hardware Licenses

Many people (including myself) have not waited around for a specialized license to go around making open hardware. Common 'subtitutions' are GPL, Creative Commons, MIT, BSD and similar open licenses. While these licenses are often pretty good at stuff like firmware, or CAD drawings, they don't take into account some of the differences with hardware, particularly patents and derivative works.


Here are some licenses that have been spotted 'in the wild' . I can't really endorse any of them, as they are all still very new (as of summer 2007) and are likely to morph as people poke at them

What is not Open Source Hardware

One point I want to make is that for a project to be considered Open Source there cannot be any restrictions placed on that project. That includes "non-commercial", "commercialization requires purchasing a license", "no government/military use", etc.

GPL/BSD/MIT do not have these restrictions and OSI is very strict about it.

If you want to keep control over your project, feel free to use a restrictive license, but don't call it open source! (See for example the SGPL from Simputer, which requires payment of $25,000 to $250,000 to manufacture the design)

Why "non-commercial" is a "non-good" idea for your project

It seems like this misunderstanding about restrictions on projects has severely bogged down open hardware. A surprising large number of projects and people are not aware that by labeling their project "Creative Commons NonCommercial" they are taking it out of the Open Source pool and also likely keeping their project from being useful to people.

When talking to people, many express concern that if they remove the NC part of their license, their project will be "abused" somehow. Let's approach these concerns and identify what is fact and what is just fear.

"I'm afraid that it will get copied by a large conglomerate and sold cheaply to people!"
This is the most common fear people have which keeps them from releasing a project under a true OS license.
One thing to ask yourself is "Who is this company?" Are they real or just a figment? Try to write down some names.

What products do they have that are close to yours that would make them a contender to 'steal' your work?

Do you think that a large company that has many liability concerns would be comfortable using an Open Source project in their line of products?

More to the point: Do you think that the company would be willing to risk intellectual-property issues that would open it up to lawsuits if they misused the content, or do you think it would make more sense for the company to spend the $5-$10K dollars to just design something similar that would be wholy owned by them?

Companies are often valued by their assets. An open source project isn't really an asset compared to a internally-developed one for which they own all intellectual property such as copyrights and patents.

Chances are if you really think hard about the 'big scary guy' who is trying to rip you off, the fact is, there's probably nobody out there with that interest. It's too risky for most, and anyways the hardest part of product development is rarely the 'schematic' but rather the manufacturing, distribution, etc.

"I'm afraid my project will be used by some big company without proper credit or attribution!"
While this doesn't have much to do with "NonCommercial" it has come up. Some people figure that by making the license restrictive they avoid having people use their work without attribution. Except that in reality, the logic doesn't work. Anyone who would not attribute your work properly probably wouldn't care about the non-commercial part anyways.

If you're concerned about attribution. here are some  things you can do. Most of the time attribution is just not clear!

Some companies with Open Hardware projects have 'requests' for attribution. For example ObDev requests "Publish your entire project on a website and drop us a note with the URL. Use the Feedback Form for your submission." It's not legally binding but most people follow the request.

I would like to sell my project as a product and I'm scared of someone becoming a competitor!
This is a slightly-more reasonable fear, and it's quite scary. But here are some things that you can remember:
You can require attribution that makes it clear that you are the originator.

You can use trademarks to create a brand. Trademarks are not covered by Open Source licenses so they remain your property. Trademarks are super-cheap compared to patents, and you can file for them yourself for about $275.

Your product is more than just a circuit board. Its your service and value. Anybody who wants to make a direct copy of your project and sell it 'to make big bucks' without making a contribution to the project, is probably pretty lazy to start, and won't be able to do the very hard work of selling a product: providing support, performing upgrades, and all the other nonsense that business-owners must do.

Here is a real-life example: the Arduino project is Open Source. There is a product that the team sells, an assembled circuit board as well as accompanying open source software. The team trademarked the word (although they haven't registered it yet), so that only the original team can use the word Arduino in the name. That isn't to say there aren't clones, there are quite a few. But they have to make it clear that they are not originals because of attribution and trademark. People do buy the clones but the numbers are very small compared to those who would rather get the Official Arduino, which is already assembled, is well supported and is guaranteed to be compatible.

If you keep your project "non-commercial" it is less likely to succeed and evolve!
If Firefox or Linux (or apache or mysql or any other open source software you use) was released under a non-commercial license, how popular do you think it would be today? Think about it: nobody working at a company could use it. No e-commerce site could use this software, or any website for a company.

Redhat, Novell, IBM, Dell, etc all use Linux in their products and services, and thus use it to make (or rather, save) money. Is that a bad thing? Do you think that Dell selling laptops with Linux preinstalled has hurt Linux or helped get it out to more people?

Do you think Linus, GNU/FSF and the rest of the people who helped design Linux and subparts dont get attributed?

If you say "non-commercial" that means nobody working in a company can use your design either. That means its stuck in academia forever. It also strongly restricts who can use or contribute to it. There might be a company that could make a big improvement to your design as part of using it in one of their projects, but they'll never work on your project because they can't!

If you have any comments or questions, don't hesitate to email or post in the forums. This is really important so I want to make it as clear and comprehesible as possible. Thanks!

May 17, 2011 20:07