Open Compute pushes GPL-like license for 'open source hardware'

Facebook's open hardware effort adopts 'prescriptive' license requiring altered designs to be contributed back to foundation when sold

The fifth Open Compute Summit, a two-day get-together staged by Facebook's Open Compute Project, hosted several big names all announcing contributions. But contributions and contributors aside -- yes, even including unexpected new folks like Microsoft -- one announcement stood out: a new way to license hardware designs contributed to the OCP.

According to the blog post that describes the changes, written by OCP Foundation chairman and president Frank Frankovsky, the original license governing the contribution of hardware to the OCP was "a relatively 'permissive' license (modeled on Apache)," the Open Web Foundation Agreement.

Apache's licensing model, aside from being used by the Apache Foundation for all its own projects (such as Hadoop), has become popular with companies that want to allow redistribution of software but avoid dilution of trademarks. Consequently, the biggest restriction with an Apache license is that it doesn't allow the use of any trademarks owned by the software's creators.

The OCP's new license model is (in the organization's words) "[a] more 'prescriptive' license (modeled on GPL) that will require anyone who modifies an original design and then sells that design to contribute the modified version back to the foundation." (Emphasis ours.)

"It's our hope that having multiple licensing options will lead to even more OCP technology contributions," Frankovsky wrote.

Open hardware designs have generally been offered with minimal restrictions, mostly centered on the monetization of resulting products. The makers of the Arduino hobby computer, for instance, offer all their reference designs under the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike license. Creating new Arduino-derived hardware doesn't require paying royalties, but it does involve following rules about how the designs and hardware are used. For example, if you make your own Arduino-based product and sell it, you need to release the designs under the same Creative Commons license.

Much of the same mindset seems to inform the OCP in revising its hardware licensing model -- both because the stakes for the individual contributors is bigger, and because any group that uses "open" as a watchword for its behavior, or even becomes the steward of any item with an open source heritage, can expect its motives to be scrutinized more closely. Case in point: Oracle, whose reputation with the open source crowd is anything but rosy, thanks to its handling of projects like MySQL and Berkeley DB.

It'll be interesting to see which of the OCP's members will be the first to contribute designs under the new licensing model -- and, in the long run, if one of the two license models ends up as the favorite for OCP contributions.

This article, "Open Compute pushes GPL-like license for 'open source hardware'," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

How to choose a low-code development platform