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Open Hardware License issues

A reader asks about the implications of open sourcing hardware.

I heard about the Open Hardware License (OHL) recently. What is it and why is it getting so much flak from the open source community? What are the implications of open sourcing hardware?

Open and collaborative hardware design has been around for a number of years, mostly as an idea and occasionally in practice. The most common form is probably OSS designed to work on certain hardware.

The Open Hardware License (OHL) project proposed at TAPR seeks to come up with a single license for such projects in order to encourage cooperation and the spread of collaborative hardware design. Because the GNU GPL is based on copyright, it can't give hardware designs the protection they need. Just because the OHL refers to much of the material it is protecting as "documentation" doesn't mean that it is simply text. It includes complicated electronic design output. The proposed license also covers hardware itself ("products").

I'm not sure what flak you are referring to concerning the OHL. There will be those who will want "free" to appear in the name. Of course, others point out that copyright ought to be enough to secure the objectives of the license. There is a lot of discussion of the Open Hardware License (OHL) over at http://technocrat.net/d/2007/2/5/14355 which is worth a look.

One point is that the OHL does not grant a patent license, but says instead that those receiving, implementing and improving designs under the license will not be sued for patent infringement by persons who have used patents in their contributions under the OHL. Some people regard this as very weak protection indeed. Another interesting fact is that there is a non-commercial version of the license for those who do not want their projects to be distributed commercially.

The OHL is operating in the experimental space that gave us GNU and Linux. The project seeks outside input, and if OHL 1.0 is released, we'll have to see what projects decide to use it. From a business perspective, the license doesn't deal with the provenance of the material, and someone wanting to base a business venture on OHL hardware might be reluctant to take on the risk. But it should allow experimentation to flourish, and even some small ventures that come out of this experimental community. Regular businesses will watch this experience before diving in.

It would be nice if the OHL were in its best possible shape before release 1.0 in order to smooth the transition from hobby to business. The GPL, partly because of its great age (in technology terms), has had a rough time with this transition. TAPR, the sponsoring organization, is willing to act as a clearing house and contact point for the technologies involved, and has the advice of some old Open Source hands.

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