What licensee to choose for Open Source Hardware?


Last few years we do a lot of OSHW and in my talk at OpenFest I explained my motives why we do it.

I see many people are encouraged to do OSHW, but hesitate what licensee to use.

I know how hard for me was this stuff as well at the beginning so I want to share my experience.

There are tons of licensees for OSHW now, many of them quite confusing if you have no law background.

For instance I did my best to understand what is the difference between Cern OSHW and MIT license but failed and most important I wanted to do something interesting instead to lose time reading this boring stuff!

In other hand everybody hesitates – these licenses may be important, what if I open my design?

Will I do any return of the money I put in it at all or thousands of Chinese better equipped factories will start producing my product leaving me with bunch of components in stock?

Do not worry my friends, to make something requires money and unless these volumes hit thousands you will be far away from these factories radar. Opening your design will just add more value to your project in the eyes of your customers as they will have better documented product which they can improve, modify and learn from.

If your design hit thousands sales you are not protected from being copied anyway – just look what happend with Cubieboard they got popular and one of their distributor Iteduino released similar design no matter Cubieboard is closed hardware.

So bottom line is: they will copy you no matter if you are open or closed hardware, probably Iteduino team hired same engineers who Tom Cubie hired for Cubieboard design.

So back on the topic of the licensees, under what licensee to release your OSHW?

My experience with OLinuXino is that no matter under what licensee you open your design, everybody will abuse it shamelessly, so you should not care too much.

Do not get me wrong, our OLinuXino sale are great, and these are one of our most popular products, but there are hundreds of derivative designs based on OLinuXino now made by commercial companies which neither give credits to Olimex (as our licensee require) neither contribute back, not even mention that their design is based on ours.

How do I know this? I know, because some of them are bold enough to send us derivative work made from OLinuXino for quote on manufacturing … 🙂

Some even do not do any changes than to replace silkscreen with their company name instead Olimex.

And there are some which ask US to replace our name on the OLinuXino boards with theirs 🙂 and promise to order XXX pcs if we do so.

So the bottom line is – if you want to give away just do it and do not search anything in return.

Open Source is state of mind, no matter what you write as licensee terms they will be abused and if you want to spend your money to lawers good luck, but what is the point to spend some money to force someone who replaced your name on the silkscreen to bring it back ?

Few days ago I spotted WTFPL licensee http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WTFPL and I love it!

I think this is the most appropiate licensee for OLinuXino and we will release A10-OLinuXino-LIME under “Do What the Fuck You Want to Public License” and all application software around it (obviously Linux will be under GPL 😉 )

Now example of bad choosen OSHW licensee: Today I read great news that imx6 SOM module is released as OSHW (http://www.cnx-software.com/2013/11/19/imx6-rex-open-source-hardware-som-designed-to-teach-schematic-and-pcb-layout-design/).

I said to myself – great job, finally there is something non trivial released as OSHW, but the initial euphoria was waived by the ridiculous licensee they have choosen: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported

WTF? No commercial use? No derivative work? Why? Guys are you serious? Based on our 18 months OLinuXino experience I can bet with you that everybody will abuse your terms and you will not be able to do anything to change it, so why did you choose this ridiculous licensee? It just make you look ridiculous and half confident in Open Source spirit and ideas?

Open source is state of mind – either do it either not! But please don’t do it in such shitty halfway matter. This just shade your great intention to share you knowledge with the others.

Better close the sources of the SOM rather to release it under these ridiculous terms which everybody will abuse.

Second fail – CAD files are made with Altium – how many contributors who will spend EUR 6000 for CAD product do you expect?

It’s really most weird OSHW project I’ve seen.

9 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. balaji
    Nov 19, 2013 @ 20:41:01

    Very interesting license. Whatever you said is 100% true. We are waiting to see WTF you release in the future 😉


  2. Dylan
    Nov 19, 2013 @ 22:02:07

    We may distinguish two sorts of goods, and two corresponding sorts of impulses. There are goods in regard to which individual possession is possible, and there are goods in which all can share alike. — Bertrand Russell

    The designs can and should be shared. DCDC6-16-TO5 looks nice, but it takes more than just https://class.coursera.org/powerelectronics-001/class to understand how a buck convertor works. Let alone a boost, buck-boost, Cuk, …


  3. Manishi Barosee
    Nov 19, 2013 @ 22:03:34

    Finally someone dared to speak on that obvious truth that was being ignored!


  4. koliqi
    Nov 20, 2013 @ 01:17:26

    OSHW is great opportunity for both big and small hardware companies.

    There are some unspoken rules to help spreading OSHW idea.

    In real life, big OSHW companies paying royalties to small companies if they decide to put in production their product.

    Here is article about unspoken rules of open source hardware: http://makezine.com/2012/02/14/soapbox-the-unspoken-rules-of-open-source-hardware/


    • OLIMEX Ltd
      Nov 20, 2013 @ 09:43:38

      I have read this article but based on my own experience it doesn’t work well in real life, or it may work in just small group of people who feel it this way as written by Philip

      to release OSHW and to wait someone to pay you royalties on good will, will have comparable result as to release FOSS and to put Donate button on the download page, out of 10000 downloads someone may decide to Donate you $1, if your business model depend on this you are done

      I don’t do OSHW because I expect someone to pay me royalties


  5. Nussgipfel
    Nov 20, 2013 @ 10:48:03

    Thanks for sharing your experience.

    If you are lucky you can convert the Altium Files with the converter from upverter: https://github.com/upverter/schematic-file-converter and use them in Kicad afterwards.

    I fully understand that they used a comercial CAD for this kind of board, else you go nuts when you have to layout your DDR SDRAM stuff with matched length and impedance controled lines (and all the differential pair stuff with USB and SATA).

    Still, you point is right, OSHW with closed source file formats are wrong.


    • Ajeandet
      Nov 20, 2013 @ 23:38:50

      I do agree with you, choosing a CAD software is a nightmare for any engineer who care about Freedom. I would add that eagle is even a bad choice, because it’s not free as in free beer(for more than 2 layers) and less as in freedom, with the maximum option it’s still worst than altium (full edition floating license =2500€/seat +800€/year/seat) and not much less expensive. Kicad start to be a serious competitor if you look at http://www.kicadcloud.com/ and http://www.eetimes.com/author.asp?section_id=36&doc_id=1320005& .
      I hope that I will get better in the future, I am also very sad to share my designs made from Altium on Win****!


  6. Tom
    Nov 20, 2013 @ 11:43:42

    I must say i have deep respect for the people and companies who have the courage to open their designs this way. It is a totally different way from what is done by the corporate giants in the past and today and it is very nice to see that it nevertheless pays off.
    To me, this is one of the revolutions that the internet spawned.


  7. Trackback: The iMX6 Rex module design licensing - iMX6 Rex Module

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