December 10, 2009 AT 2:02 pm

A critical look at open licensing for hardware?

Here’s a post on Slashdot about that open source hardware camp we posted about previously…

At a recent Open Hardware Camp in London, it became clear that one of the main obstacles to applying open source principles to hardware was licensing. For example, (1)should competing big companies be allowed to use their economies of scale to make and sell cheaper products based on open hardware designs developed by small start-ups without payment? (2)There’s also the problem that hacking designs for physical objects like open source cars may have safety implications, which raises questions about liability. So what’s the best way to address these issues?”

  1. Yes, if the OSH makers create OSH and state commercial use allowed (and other items like attribution/share-alike are followed) that’s that, it’s why this is working out so well. We (Adafruit) we are pretty adamant about this because the success of open source software came from the freedom to use the software in commercial products.
  2. Open source hardware licensing and “safety implications” for cars, two different things. The Linux kernel is not liable for your havoc, liability comes from the manufacturer, not the code repository.

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  1. Automobiles are subject to strict regulation in order to be “street legal.” As you mention, liability is not related to licensing, but instead to manufacturers abiding by local governmental rules, regulations and sound design/manufacturing practices.

    If OSH creators are concerned with major manufacturers using and selling their designs at a lower price, I think at least 2 options are available:

    1) Disallow commercial use.
    2) Allow non-commercial use freely, and charge a licensing fee for commercial use, and commercial use of any future derivatives of the original design.

    I’m unsure at this point, however, how one would enforce #2 without a patent and a lot of money.

  2. Actually as I was there and I think either Glyn has got it wrong or has been mis quoted perhaps.

    The real concerns where that larger companies with Patent portfolios could ringfence opensource innovations and thus exploit them, I don’t think attendees where worried about others manufacturing from their projects.

    The point about safety was the other way around if I remmber correctly in that it is difficult for opensource hardware projects to get safety approvals and sell into the consumer market place (as a means of becoming self funding). Larger commercial companies often have the resources and capital to take products through the regulatory maze in order to gain approvals and could leap frog there opensource counterparts. At the same time most were satisfied that this was a manufacturing issue rather than an open source issue. It would however be nice if the barriers could be lowered for opensource projects in order to obtain regulatory approvals.

    Personally I believe in the ‘because effect’ approach to opensource and find the commons a more sustainable mechanism for both innovation and responsibility.

    Obviously someone has their wires crossed

    The event itself was excellent primarily because the attendees were both fascinating and passionate

  3. Sorry for the typos & poor grammar but

    Just to clarify on the approvals/safety point, regulation nearly always benefits established Incumbent within a given market place (some actually lobby for such regulation). This in turn acts as a barrier to entry for new competitors opensource or otherwise.

  4. You would need something like he GPLv3 for open hardware. Make all you want, and modify, but if you sell/distribute the product you must make the changes public. And not claim patents. And the license attaches upstream

    If a larger manufacturer can get me an arduino for $5 unit quantity, go for it. If they can do something better, also fine. As long as it doesn’t become any bit less open.

    We need more (for example) arduino variants – a Mega with sram would be nice. The more derivatives, the more formats, the merrier.

    As to safety, a recent video noted there are kit-cars, which if it is 51% personal built, there are no licensing problems. Liability is in the hacker’s hands (also noting the relase of a Triac shield which takes AC and could fry something and/or someone).

    Back during the crypto-is-a-munition days, I and others tried to make the point that software is “speech”. Expression. Covered by the 1st Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Designs, layouts, firmware and all this are also expressions. Lines of code aren’t poetry, but they accomplish something. So do the gerbers of a circuit board or a 3d file with a fixture.

    Speech has no liability, at least not in the sense used here (not counting slander/libel or IP infringement).

  5. We have been closely following your model for open source hardware as we are relasing our “Midifighter” device for DJs (http://djtechtools.com/).

    The question of blocking other people from using our code in commercial products was brought up, but we’re several products ahead of the release schedule in ideas and designs. If someone wants to make out product and deal with the hassle of user support, good for them. GPL is right for our firmware, and CC Attribution-Sharealike seems the right model for the schematic and layout.

    And we’re selling out as fast as we can make them! It’s all about the community as much as it is the product. Source is here: http://sourceforge.net/projects/midifighter/

  6. fatlimey, couldn’t agree more 🙂 thank you so much for contributing back to the community. when you’ve released the firmware and files, please contact us (here or via email) so we can put you in our Open Source Hardware Gift Guide. (its coming out soon tho, so if you want to get in this year please do so asap)

  7. the liability question is an interesting one… if you make a piece of hardware that people can tinker with, to what extent might you as a developer and they as a tinkerer/user be at fault for something that goes wrong? The car example is an extreme, but it’s one that we’ll have to deal with eventually. I don’t think you can simply disclaim all liability for any accidents after any product modifications have been made (but that’s probably what car manufacturers do!). It would be great to get someone with both open source and product liability/consumer protection legal expertise to weigh in on this. If there’s a clause that could be devised to make it a win-win for developers and users, that would be a good addition to any open source hardware license.

  8. I was also there and in general agree with @Al. Although, some people did also raise safety/certification concerns along the lines of “what if people modify the car?” etc. Well, you can change the chip in your car’s EMU now, ride a 50cc motorbike on a UK provisional licence w/CBT and then modify it to go faster than ~30mph, rewire your own house without being accredited and so on… And you may be fine and you might not get into trouble. Then again, you could land yourself in a lot of hot water! So, whilst this concern is a natural first reaction, it’s not significant. Reminds me of when people new to F/OSS freak out over the idea that “someone” might stick a trojan in, say, Firefox because it has a public VCS containing the source code.

    @tz AFAIK no version of the GPL will protect, in terms of copyleft, the physical product, e.g. a car or one of its subsystems or parts. Since these cannot be considered analogous to object code. So the GPL is only useful in protecting design artefacts such as source code, schematics and CAD files. In the same way that you can’t just misappropriate the source for, say, the proprietary UNIX ‘cp’ command for your own use, whereas you can look at what it does and create a cloned ‘clean room’ implementation. So people can copy your car, make an improved version for sale and give you nothing back despite your GPLing the CAD files. To be able to exercise some control over the ideas embodied in your car you need patents. And I’m told that there is, sadly, no copyleft-like instrument for hardware that mandates reciprocity.

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