Can anyone give me a rundown of the various licenses that are well-suited to open hardware? I've designed a few circuit boards and would like to make them available for others to use, so I need to choose a license for them.

Things I'm concerned about:

  1. Attribution. Are others required to credit me? If so, how? I know this turned out to be a big issue with some BSD licenses for software.

  2. Commercial use. Can folks copies of my work, or not? I don't really care if they do, but I'd like some credit if so :)

  3. Can others take my work and make "closed" derivatives of it? Similar to #2, but for when people start changing things.

  4. How "strong" is this license? 2 lines made up by a random hacker can constitute a license, but I'd prefer someone with legal training to have looked at it.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Hopefully this doesn't turn into flamebait. That wasn't my intention. \$\endgroup\$ – edebill Dec 19 '09 at 19:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ It seems like a reasonable question to myself. \$\endgroup\$ – Kortuk Dec 19 '09 at 22:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ This fits into my other question about patents, too. How do people using open source licenses make money? They just buy the parts in bulk and sell kits, and make money because the price is lower for the buyer than if they bought the parts in single quantities? chiphacker.com/questions/1098/… \$\endgroup\$ – endolith Dec 20 '09 at 17:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ There was a meeting about this: scienceblogs.com/commonknowledge/2010/03/open_hardware.php \$\endgroup\$ – endolith Mar 24 '10 at 14:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ If you want to call something open Open Source Hardware, then you must allow any use, by anyone, read: freedomdefined.org/… \$\endgroup\$ – dren.dk Sep 28 '11 at 9:34

I use the creative commons license and the GNU LGPL version 3, which is normally used for software but has now been extended to hardware also. http://www.gnu.org/licenses/lgpl.html

Even though people can copy your work, the license will protect you if someone rips off your idea without accrediting you even if they take your idea and change it (proving this could be difficult). The license also protects against people copying your work for any commercial exploits.

As with all licenses, trademarks and copyright they are only a strong as the legal team you can afford to back them up with.

Even a patent is pretty pathetic when faced with the legal team of a large corporation. A company I used to work for in the UK had £50,000 worth of patents on a new loud speaker system, just to have some big company bring out an almost identical, but slightly different system, 6 months after. Patents and Licenses are all good, if your a massive company, for the average joe it's a waste of cash.

I make and sell all my work with both the CC and LGPL licenses - http://www.sonodrome.co.uk

As far as I know they are the most comprehensive free licenses available online.

  • \$\begingroup\$ GPL doesn't prevent people from using something commercially. gnu.org/philosophy/selling.html \$\endgroup\$ – endolith Dec 20 '09 at 17:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ It doesn't stop you from selling it or using it for commercial purposes! Just other people, at least not without your permission \$\endgroup\$ – Jim Dec 20 '09 at 21:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ If you release something under the GPL, anyone can use it for commercial purposes without your permission. \$\endgroup\$ – endolith Dec 21 '09 at 15:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ Right you are, I'll start chewing the rim of my hat now! Am I right in thinking that, if someone wants to sell your LGP Licensed product they too would have to release it under the same type of License? So in other words they couldn't take your product and just patent it? \$\endgroup\$ – Jim Dec 22 '09 at 13:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ This is the reason I use the LGPLv3 in combination with the creative commons license -> creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0 I think it's this one that protects against use of your work in a commercial capacity. \$\endgroup\$ – Jim Dec 22 '09 at 13:06

Have you looked at the Creative Commons license pages http://creativecommons.org ? The first three items in your list are condition options on the license page. It almost sounds like the -- "by attribution" "share alike" license meets your requirements. You can also add other terms and conditions to the license.

Unless there are patents involved in your work there may not be a lot of protection anyways. Although someone may not be able to create derivative works using your schematics or layout files they could redraw the schematics and do their own layout of the board. Of course if you have a 12 layer board with 4/4 design rules and buried vias not many people will have the resources to copy it anyways ;)


One thing to remember is that you, as copyright holder, can multi-license things. You can release it to the general public under a CC non-commercial license, for instance, and then turn around and sell it to a corporation under whatever terms you want.

So if you choose to license your work under a Creative Commons license that includes the “noncommercial use” option, you impose the ”noncommercial” condition on the users (licensees). However, you, the creator of the work and/or licensor, may at any time decide to use it commercially. People who want to copy or adapt your work, "primarily for monetary compensation or financial gain" must get your separate permission first. - wiki

Another thing to remember is that you're only copyrighting the schematics and PCB layout. Anyone can "paraphrase" your work by re-drawing it, and it won't be a copyright violation. If you patent it, on the other hand, they can't duplicate the same functionality regardless of PCB layout. (The idea that source code and PCB layouts can be covered by copyright law has always seemed flawed to me. They're utilitarian designs, not creative works.)

  • \$\begingroup\$ Maybe we should treat components and chips like words, and circuits as poems or stories. I feel it can be creative, some of the coolest circuits out there are a re-appropriation of a component for a use it was not originally intended. I'm sure when Hans R. Camenzind designed the 555 timer, he did not imagine it being used as a squarewave oscillator. \$\endgroup\$ – Jim Dec 20 '09 at 21:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ Lest we forget, there is such a thing as aesthetics in the world of electronics and technology. Well I hope so! \$\endgroup\$ – Jim Dec 20 '09 at 21:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yes, it's "creative", and yes, there are aesthetics involved, but the design is motivated almost entirely by the functionality. In most cases, you move components and ground traces around because it makes the circuit work better, not because of how it looks, or because you're trying to express some criticism of society's treatment of the poor. \$\endgroup\$ – endolith Dec 21 '09 at 15:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ @endolith: very cool. I created a new question to discuss this further -- chiphacker.com/questions/4333/… . \$\endgroup\$ – davidcary Sep 10 '10 at 12:34

TAPR Open Hardware License is specifically aimed at hardware.


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