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Feature: Legal

Raymond, Nelson critical of new planned license for open source peripherals

By Michael Stutz on February 07, 2007 (8:00:00 AM)

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Tucson Amateur Packet Radio (TAPR) is sponsoring a plan to encourage and popularize the idea of open source -- for hardware components. The organization released a draft of an open source license for computer hardware this month, and issued a public call for comments on the draft. The new license is already drawing criticism from prominent members of the open source community.

The Open Hardware License (OHL) was written by John Ackermann, a lawyer whose specialty is open source licensing. Ackermann says that one of the primary motivators for developing the OHL was a series of radio hardware projects whose developers asked TAPR for support.

"While I had been interested for quite a while in developing an open source license for hardware, their request for one pushed me into actually doing it," he says.

The license actually applies to the schematics and other data that documents the hardware. It carries stipulations for any products that are then created from that documentation.

"Existing licenses deal mainly with copyright concepts, and those don't work particularly well for [hardware] designs," says Ackermann, who explains that a copyright-based model makes sense when you're licensing the logic flow of a device as opposed to the actual details of manufacturing it, but that "the closer you get to creating a physical artifact rather than a logical design, the more the weakness of copyright for that purpose shows."

Ackermann says that with respect to the documentation aspect of the license, it's a lot like the GPL, but that "it also governs what you have to do if you want to make products from that documentation"; in this case, the license compels you to publish the documentation you used to make the product, and there are also provisions for patent immunity.

Open to review

The license is currently open for public scrutiny and review, and has been made available as a working draft in PDF format. A variation that is for non-commercial use only (which classifies it as non-free) is also published in PDF. Public comment is being accepted until March 7.

"I will let some public comment come in and also review it with a few lawyers and tweak it around a bit and see if we can improve it a little," he says.

OHL Development mailing list member Bruce Perens says the license has also been submitted it to the Software Freedom Law Center, and that he plans to submit it to the Open Source Initiative (OSI) for approval. OSI hosts the Open Source Definition (Perens himself wrote the first draft) and maintain a list of software licenses that conform to it.

Early reaction to the draft from OSI, however, has been critical.

"I think it's safe to say that the board is generally in favor of the idea of open source hardware," says Eric S. Raymond, OSI founder and president emeritus, "but I see lots and lots of problems with this license, and I'm pretty sure the board would down-check it."

Among Raymond's criticism is the license's definition of "distribution."

"I boggle at this," says Raymond, quoting that fragment of the license. "This essentially strips the word 'distribution' of its normal meaning, assuring lots of contention over edge cases." He also notes that OSI only approves licenses for software.

"There's no reason why you couldn't use an [OSI-approved] open source license for open source hardware," says Russ Nelson of Crynwr Software, also an OSI board member.

Another of Raymond's concerns is the requirement that notice be made to an email address at TAPR, whose contents will appear on a public mailing list. Raymond wonders what would happen if the address were bouncing mail.

"If this seems like a quibble, it isn't," he says. "One of the goals of open source licensing is to avoid creating situations where our development networks have single points of failure."

"TAPR is just archiving that list," Perens counters. "I bet you it'll get spam, they'll have to clean it a bit, but the point of that is not so much who's maintaining it -- we're pretty sure that it'll be maintained -- but that submissions will be in public view. So when you make a change and you send something to that list, that's a broadcast."

A growing idea

A lot of existing "open hardware" projects already use existing open source licenses. Perhaps the most popular open hardware project today is the sprawling opencores site, which recommends the GPL or BSD licenses for its many projects, but even some of the biggest players in the industry have done it: IBM's promotes open development for the company's Power Architecture, and Sun GPLed its UltraSPARC T1.

Indeed, the idea of "open hardware" is old -- it's been bandied about for years, and the Web is still packed with remnants of old pages and sites with promising names like "The Open Hardware Certification Program," "The Open Hardware Specification," and "Open Source Hardware Page," but if you try to go there you'll find yourself reaching dead links and vanished domains.

"Open source hardware's just getting easier to do, and more people are doing it for more different reasons," says Perens. "If you look in the electronics market, devices like programmable gate arrays are really easily in the reach of an individual experimenter, sort of like a high-end motherboard a few years ago."

While Perens says he thinks it's "probably being a little grandiose" to believe that people can economically begin to produce their own open source motherboards, he thinks that the biggest effect the new license can have right now is with peripheral devices.

Perens cites the shortage of free 3-D video drivers as an example. Today both Nvidia and ATI cards have proprietary 3-D designs, whereas Intel does have a chipset driven entirely by an open source 3-D driver.

"As far as I can tell, these [Intel] devices only come on motherboards. Well gee, why doesn't someone buy these Intel chips and put them on a card? Because that would be a fully open source 3-D card. So I think that we can make great hay in the peripheral device space right now. And there's lots of stuff that you just can't get in the store," he adds. "You know, [stuff that] possibly might not have a mass market, where open source hardware in small runs like those done by TAPR can really satisfy a market that wouldn't be satisfied otherwise."

The first actual products to use the finalized OHL are themselves "in the final steps of going to manufacture," according to Ackermann. "The products should be available within the first half of this year," he says.

Perens hopes that by popularizing open source for hardware, these products will also be an effective tool in the battle against digital rights management (DRM).

"I am worried about trusted platform and all of the onslaught of DRM," he says, "and I fear that there will be a day when you can't boot a non-trusted operating system on a modern motherboard."

Including, he says, Linux.

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on Raymond, Nelson critical of new planned license for open source peripherals

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Great stuff

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on February 08, 2007 12:14 AM
Software as a commodity is wonderful...

Hardware as a commodity is even better. We just might be on the cusp of an era where *gasp* the user actually controls the computer. No more will select bits of the hardware be hidden behind a curtain, beyond which only the manufacturer may peer.

It was only a matter of time before someone started doing this. Of course, the cost of entry is much higher than it was for software, so the delay makes sense.

"I am worried about trusted platform and all of the onslaught of DRM," he says, "and I fear that there will be a day when you can't boot a non-trusted operating system on a modern motherboard."

Hasn't this already happened with Apple's hardware? Forgive my ignorance if I happen to be wrong, but I've heard of major difficulties getting Linux to dual boot on the new Intel-based Macs.


Re:Great stuff

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on February 09, 2007 05:21 PM
Its the people that will drive the development.

Thats why I keep on saying that we should win more users with good quality (and many more) games (for entertainment).

Imagine what would happen if the younger users would switch away from Windows and the locked-in schemes. (Apple isnt that much better than MS in my book
in regards to lock-in schemes.)



Posted by: Anonymous Coward on February 08, 2007 01:14 AM
Open (source) hardware rocks!
I hope there will be more open hardware in the future. I think that it was really great of Sun to release T1 under the GPL.

Recently, the Open Hardware Foundation was established, it was established in January 2007.
* <a href="" title=""></a>

The OpenCores project is great too!

<a href="" title=""></a>

I hope the OpenGraphics project will be successful.
<a href="" title=""></a>


Re:Feedback requested!

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on February 08, 2007 07:44 AM
John; you did yourself and the rest of us a BIG favor when you enlisted Bruce's help, and when you left Raymond & Nelson out of the loop. We appreciate what you're doing.


Re:Feedback requested!

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on February 08, 2007 11:45 PM
Posting here, since I don't have an account on Technocrat and cant post anonymous.

I would like the license to grant the freedom to;
* Use the hardware, for any purpose.
* Study how the hardware and firmware works, and adapt it to your needs.
* Redistribute copies of the firmware, so you can help your neighbor.
* Improve the hardware, circuit design, firmware, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits.


Re:Feedback requested!

Posted by: Administrator on February 09, 2007 12:03 AM
Thanks for the feedback!

First, the OHL doesn't address firmware or programmable devices -- it's purely aimed at physical hardware (e.g., circuit boards or mechanical assemblies). This is because VHDL and firmware fit much better into a copyright-based model while the physical hardware designs that the OHL focuses on require a different approach.

The OHL does allow use of the hardware for any purpose (though a variant is available that limits products to noncommercial use only). The full documentation for the product must be made available for study or modification, and you are allowed to distribute those modifications.

So, I think the OHL meets the desires you've listed.

John Ackermann


Open source

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on February 08, 2007 11:52 PM
* Source code (for firmware) must be included.
* No Discrimination Against Persons or Groups.
* No Discrimination Against Fields of Endeavor.

People must be allowed to modify the source code, and must be allowed to distribute the source code.

Maybe must release hardware design schematics, schema, semantics, Verilog, VHDL, stuff, etc.


Re:Open source

Posted by: Administrator on February 09, 2007 12:09 AM
Again, firmware isn't covered by the OHL.

The OHL does not discriminate against persons, groups, or fields of endeavor, but there is a companion license (the TAPR Noncommercial Hardware License) that, as its name implies, does impose a limitation on commercial use. We developed that version because some of the TAPR consituents very much wanted it, but we are not encouraging its widespread use.

Regarding release of design info, the basic model is that if you don't reduce the design to actual hardware, you are not required to provide Gerbers or other manufacturing files. But if you do produce actual devices, then in theory you've already created those files, and are required to release all documentation "reasonably required to allow others to make the Products."

John Ackermann


We're already addressing Eric and Russ' concerns

Posted by: Administrator on February 08, 2007 01:02 AM
We'll look at Eric's concern about the definition of distribution.

Regarding his concern about the email, the license says that you are released from the email obligation if the address does not work. Thus, I believe this particular concern has already been addressed.

Regarding Russ' concern about why you need a hardware license, there are two reasons: because the fixation of an uncopyrightable idea into a copyrightable one is weaker for hardware designs, and because the transmission of copyright from a hardware design to the actual implementation is also weaker. Thus, this license takes more trouble to establish a patent detante than most Open Source licenses, because it's sometimes going to be patent rather than copyright that applies to the design. But at the same time, the license does not encourage anyone to patent their design, its patent detante is like a quit-claim deed - it doesn't profess that the grantor has any patent rights to give up, but it gives them up if the grantor has them.




Feedback requested!

Posted by: Administrator on February 08, 2007 02:25 AM
I'm the author of the Open Hardware License, and I'd like to encourage folks interested in it to join the discussion at <a href="" title=""></a>. I'm taking the comments there very seriously, and there are already some that will probably lead to changes in the final version of the document. If, for example, the definition of "distribute" is troublesome, we can certainly talk about ways to fix that.

Bruce already mentioned that others of Eric's and Russ' concerns have been addressed -- for example, you only need to attempt to email modifications; if the email fails, you've done your bit and your rights under the license continue. There's no single point of failure.

I think the most important thing to note is that from a legal perspective dealing with hardware is quite different than software. Because copyright protects only the expression of ideas, and not the ideas themselves, a copyright-based model like the GPL doesn't work well in this area. We use a more contract-based approach, and create a "patent free zone" around the product. The patent language is really a key part of the agreement.

In addition, the OHL limits itself to physical products and the documents that describe them. Code that gets loaded into programmable devices, for example, fits much better into a copyright-based software model. While it might make sense to have a license specifically aimed at VHDL and similar design languages, I don't think shoehorning them into the OHL is the best approach.

Again, if you're interested, please join the discussion. The comment period is open until March 7.

John Ackermann


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