4 min readThe Economy of Open: Licensing Open Hardware

London, UK – The argument for exclusive licenses on academic IP relies on the assumption that the business needs to be protected from potential competitors, whereas the academic partner needs to secure returns on the investment of public money into the original research project.

However, the growing success of the Open Source Hardware movement is making a case for a new type of relationship between those who create the IP and the others who turn the designs into tangible products.

The champions of Open Source Hardware movement believe that technological knowledge should be accessible to anyone and that open sharing of hardware designs will promote commercialization rather than hinder it.

The movement was born in 1997, when Bruce Perens, the creator of the Open Source Definition, launched the Open Hardware Certification Program with the main goal of allowing hardware manufacturers to certify their products as open.

The inspiration came from the success and popularity of the Open Source and Free Software communities. However, the original initiative faded out within the first couple of years and returned into the spotlight only by the mid-2000s when several major open source hardware companies (such as Arduino) emerged on the market.

“For us, the drive towards open hardware was largely motivated by well-intentioned envy of our colleagues who develop Linux device-drivers,” said Javier Serrano, an engineer at CERN’s Beams Department and the founder of the OHR.

“They are part of a very large community of designers who share their knowledge and time in order to come up with the best possible operating system. We felt that there was no intrinsic reason why hardware development should be any different.”

The open source hardware (sometimes also referred to as open hardware) is defined as any tangible product whose design is made publicly available so that anyone can study, modify, distribute, make, and sell the design or products based on that design.

The original term was applied mostly to computer hardware and radio electronics. But as the idea became more widespread, the movement has expanded into the fields of agriculture hardware, fashion products and even biotechnology. A number of companies have emerged, such as IORodeo, that produce open hardware for science research.

“The concept of ‘open-source hardware’ or ‘open hardware’ is not yet as well known or widespread as the free software or open-source software concept,” says Myriam Ayass, Legal Advisor for CERN’s Knowledge Transfer Group. “However, it shares the same principles: anyone should be able to see the source (the design documentation in case of hardware), study it, modify it and share it.”

Open hardware design files and documentation can either be made available under a copyright-based or hardware-specific license. However, since copyright law does not automatically apply to electronics designs, a new type of hardware-specific licenses was developed to establish a relationship between the IP creators and companies or individuals wishing to manufacture open hardware.

The two most commonly used licenses for open hardware are TAPR and CERN Open Hardware licenses.

Version 1.0 of the CERN OHL was published in March 2011 on the Open Hardware Repository (OHR) established by Serrano, in collaboration with a group of electronic designers working in experimental-physics laboratories.

“As founders of the Open Hardware Repository we were aware of the need for a legal tool that would allow knowledge sharing but also commercialization of products under the conditions guaranteed by open-source licences,” says Serrano, who co-authored the CERN OHL with Ayass.

CERN OHL is a typical copyleft license, which allows anyone to study, modify and share the original or edited designs for as long as the new version of the design files is licensed under the same terms.

The designs, referred to as ‘Documentation’ in the license terms, “can include schematic diagrams, designs, circuit or circuit board layouts, mechanical drawings, flow charts and descriptive text, and other explanatory material.”

The company who chooses to produce hardware licensed under the CERN OHL, is required to make the original or modified designs available to consumers. The latest version of the licence also advices (however, does not oblige) the manufacturer to notify upstream licensors about the modifications made in the original files.

“Of course, there is a certain risk involved for companies who join the open source movement,” admits Ayass. “You have open access to the design files but so do all your competitors. It’s an open competition.”

However, open hardware licences provide a chance for smaller companies to play a larger role in the market. Ayass says: “Open licenses are opportunities for smaller firms. We give them a chance to get on board and help them compete with the big players.”

Currently, the Open Hardware Repository website reports 12 companies involved in development or commercialization of open hardware licensed under the CERN OHL. Many other open hardware businesses still use copyright licenses such the Creative Commons Share-Alike (Arduino) or permissive BSD licenses (Adafruit) for their design files.

“Open Hardware License can be viewed as the Easy Access IP taken to the extreme. There is no restriction or control over who joins [the initiative],” says Serrano. “We also have a collaboration scheme. Every project has a common mailing list where everyone is invited to submit ideas, which often sparks collaboration between scientists and companies.”

However, not every design is suitable for distribution under the open source conditions.

“The open hardware approach is good when you need a collaborative environment and a lot of input and feedback from the community in order to turn a design into a product,” explains Ayass.

But when the gap between the design and the product is too large, the OHL may not be the best way to disseminate the IP.

“For us, Open Source is a philosophy,” says Ayass. “At CERN, we are not looking to maximise profit, we want to maximise knowledge dissemination. If we see that a new development will bring the most impact to society under the open license, that is what we will do.”

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