Can Open Source desing be COPYRIGHT?


I admit I confused these two not long time ago, and because I guess many others may be also confused and mix these things I will try to explain what I learned about it.

I still do remember August 2011, there were few months since we launched our Open Source Hardware design Pinguino and I got e-mail from customer of ours in Australia who pointed me to some Australian blogger who also does some online electronics talk show on his web site.

So this guy IIRC his name was Dave was commenting our Pinguino design, well actually it was hard to tell he was commenting, as he was yelling around 10 minutes and as English is not my native language I was able to catch just some words like: “shame” , “olimex”, “open source”, “copyright?!?”.

What Dave was very annoyed was the fact that we put COPYRIGHT(C) text on our board silkscreen next to OSHW logo and according to him this is mutually exclusively i.e. Open Source Hardware Design can’t have COPYRIGHT message at all.

Well I will admit I was not open source nor licensee expert so I was confused for a while too.

SO I told our developers to put “DESIGNED BY” instead of “COPYRIGHT” to our new projects which we release under Open Source Hardware Licensee. There were not so many Open Source Hardware designs to take as reference anyway and on Arduino Board (which is still most popular Open Source Hardware design)  was written “Designed in Italy” so I assumed this is the correct way to do it.

Recently we finish STM32-H407 board and I got in touch with Garry Bulmer, we start discussing these issues and he explained to me what is the connection with Copyright and Open Source, which I accept as it have quite logic in it.

Garry said: When you design or develop something as an AUTHOR you have the COPYRIGHT on this, PERIOD.

Then you as COPYRIGHT owner can LICENSEE this product of yours under whatever LICENSEE you want i.e. GPL, BSD, CC-BY etc.

You CAN’T LICENSEE something under any terms IF you are not the author who have the COPYRIGHT.

Thinking logically this is perfectly true.

That you create something which you release under Open Source Licensee do not waive your COPYRIGHT as AUTHOR of the project. So it’s perfectly OK you as Author and Copyright holder to put on your products the COPYRIGHT text even if you licensee it under Open Source Licensee.

If you want your product to be closed source you can write “COPYRIGHT(C) 2012 by YOURNAME Ltd, All rights reserved” this means you have the rights for this product and one want to licensee it have to contact you and to negotiate the licensee terms under which you will licensee the product to him.

If you want to create Open source project and licensee it under Creative Commons Share-Alike Licensee you can put on your board: “COPYRIGHT(C) 2012 by YOURNAME Ltd, released under CC-SA-3.0 Open source licensee” and this will be enough.

In both cases the COPYRIGHT text identify you as the AUTHOR and COPYRIGHT holder of this design, but this is not in conflict with the fact that in second case you Licensee your work under open source licensee terms.

NOTICE: I’m not lawer and this is just my point of view, your comments are welcome!

11 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. RR
    May 11, 2012 @ 08:52:15

    Creative Commons licenses are by definition copyright licenses and Dave is just a Dave, he is famous for ranting, you should send him OLinuXino for review 😀


  2. Max
    May 11, 2012 @ 09:09:57

    Indeed your friend was right (though I’m not a lawyer either). These terms do not conflict, the point of open source licenses (Creative Commons, GPL, etc.) is simply to declare that you as the author and copyright holder explicitly give some rights to other people, and in turn you require those people to keep giving those same rights to others if they modify your design. Basically, you use your copyright to make sure nobody can take away from people the rights / freedoms that you want to give them, but of course you still are the copyright holder.


  3. Svetoslav
    May 11, 2012 @ 10:54:42

    Actually both Garry and Dave are correct. As long as you are the sole designer of the project you own the copyright. Therefore you can put “COPYRIGHT(C) 2012 by YOURNAME Ltd….” if you wanted. You can even change to commercial license for later revisions.
    But the moment you start accepting contributions (from full schematic updates to verbal tips for improvement) the copyright is no longer yours only but distributed among all contributors. They implicitly give you the rights to distribute their work under the existing license. Then it would be wrong to put “COPYRIGHT” notice.


    • OLIMEX Ltd
      May 11, 2012 @ 12:49:52

      good point, but Pinguino was developed sole by Olimex 😉


      • Benny
        May 11, 2012 @ 21:03:42

        No you didn’t 100%, you based the layout of an Arduino board ;-), maybe followed some design from datasheets etc.

    • RR
      May 11, 2012 @ 13:27:36

      unless you include statement like “parts copyright by “


    • Dave
      May 11, 2012 @ 14:35:27

      Yes good point. It does get messy once people have started to contribute. Of course, not all OSHW projects have people contributing, so in that case the copyright can stay indefinitely without question.


      • OLIMEX Ltd
        May 11, 2012 @ 14:47:31

        I did google search for Linux copyright to read some more on the subject and found web site where is written that Linux is still on GPL 2.0 and one of the reason to stay there is that if they have to move to GPL 3.0 all many thousands of contributors who wrote these 30 millions lines of code should agree in written with the new licensee

  4. Dave
    May 11, 2012 @ 14:32:34

    I’m the Dave in question.
    My complaint came about because you had not released the hardware design files at the time (against the OSHW policy). The Copyright message was a side issue, and because you had not released the design files at the time, it all added up and looked a bit suspicious.
    You are correct. The author always retains copyright, and it is indeed ok to put a copyright message on OSHW design files.
    As you said, it was not common to have a copyright message on OSHW at the time, but it is of course a perfectly valid thing to do.


    • OLIMEX Ltd
      May 11, 2012 @ 14:44:26

      correct, we uploaded the files after the initial production was run and we fixed all issues to the board, not that this matters much, as now I upload the files of OLinuXino with each revision we make, but I’m pretty sure there will be still corrections after we assembly the first 1000 pcs and run them on the functional tests, it’s one to assembly 10 prototypes another thing is to pass 1000 boards on the assembly line, then all problems and tolerances in the components give good statistical feedback which have to be tuned again a bit


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