February 7, 2007

Raymond, Nelson critical of new planned license for open source peripherals

Author: Michael Stutz

Tucson Amateur Packet Radio (TAPR) is sponsoring a plan to encourage and popularize the idea of open source -- for hardware components. The organization released a draft of an open source license for computer hardware this month, and issued a public call for comments on the draft. The new license is already drawing criticism from prominent members of the open source community.

The Open Hardware License (OHL) was written by John Ackermann, a lawyer whose specialty is open source licensing. Ackermann says that one of the primary motivators for developing the OHL was a series of radio hardware projects whose developers asked TAPR for support.

"While I had been interested for quite a while in developing an open source license for hardware, their request for one pushed me into actually doing it," he says.

The license actually applies to the schematics and other data that documents the hardware. It carries stipulations for any products that are then created from that documentation.

"Existing licenses deal mainly with copyright concepts, and those don't work particularly well for [hardware] designs," says Ackermann, who explains that a copyright-based model makes sense when you're licensing the logic flow of a device as opposed to the actual details of manufacturing it, but that "the closer you get to creating a physical artifact rather than a logical design, the more the weakness of copyright for that purpose shows."

Ackermann says that with respect to the documentation aspect of the license, it's a lot like the GPL, but that "it also governs what you have to do if you want to make products from that documentation"; in this case, the license compels you to publish the documentation you used to make the product, and there are also provisions for patent immunity.

Open to review

The license is currently open for public scrutiny and review, and has been made available as a working draft in PDF format. A variation that is for non-commercial use only (which classifies it as non-free) is also published in PDF. Public comment is being accepted until March 7.

"I will let some public comment come in and also review it with a few lawyers and tweak it around a bit and see if we can improve it a little," he says.

OHL Development mailing list member Bruce Perens says the license has also been submitted it to the Software Freedom Law Center, and that he plans to submit it to the Open Source Initiative (OSI) for approval. OSI hosts the Open Source Definition (Perens himself wrote the first draft) and maintain a list of software licenses that conform to it.

Early reaction to the draft from OSI, however, has been critical.

"I think it's safe to say that the board is generally in favor of the idea of open source hardware," says Eric S. Raymond, OSI founder and president emeritus, "but I see lots and lots of problems with this license, and I'm pretty sure the board would down-check it."

Among Raymond's criticism is the license's definition of "distribution."

"I boggle at this," says Raymond, quoting that fragment of the license. "This essentially strips the word 'distribution' of its normal meaning, assuring lots of contention over edge cases." He also notes that OSI only approves licenses for software.

"There's no reason why you couldn't use an [OSI-approved] open source license for open source hardware," says Russ Nelson of Crynwr Software, also an OSI board member.

Another of Raymond's concerns is the requirement that notice be made to an email address at TAPR, whose contents will appear on a public mailing list. Raymond wonders what would happen if the address were bouncing mail.

"If this seems like a quibble, it isn't," he says. "One of the goals of open source licensing is to avoid creating situations where our development networks have single points of failure."

"TAPR is just archiving that list," Perens counters. "I bet you it'll get spam, they'll have to clean it a bit, but the point of that is not so much who's maintaining it -- we're pretty sure that it'll be maintained -- but that submissions will be in public view. So when you make a change and you send something to that list, that's a broadcast."

A growing idea

A lot of existing "open hardware" projects already use existing open source licenses. Perhaps the most popular open hardware project today is the sprawling opencores site, which recommends the GPL or BSD licenses for its many projects, but even some of the biggest players in the industry have done it: IBM's Power.org promotes open development for the company's Power Architecture, and Sun GPLed its UltraSPARC T1.

Indeed, the idea of "open hardware" is old -- it's been bandied about for years, and the Web is still packed with remnants of old pages and sites with promising names like "The Open Hardware Certification Program," "The Open Hardware Specification," and "Open Source Hardware Page," but if you try to go there you'll find yourself reaching dead links and vanished domains.

"Open source hardware's just getting easier to do, and more people are doing it for more different reasons," says Perens. "If you look in the electronics market, devices like programmable gate arrays are really easily in the reach of an individual experimenter, sort of like a high-end motherboard a few years ago."

While Perens says he thinks it's "probably being a little grandiose" to believe that people can economically begin to produce their own open source motherboards, he thinks that the biggest effect the new license can have right now is with peripheral devices.

Perens cites the shortage of free 3-D video drivers as an example. Today both Nvidia and ATI cards have proprietary 3-D designs, whereas Intel does have a chipset driven entirely by an open source 3-D driver.

"As far as I can tell, these [Intel] devices only come on motherboards. Well gee, why doesn't someone buy these Intel chips and put them on a card? Because that would be a fully open source 3-D card. So I think that we can make great hay in the peripheral device space right now. And there's lots of stuff that you just can't get in the store," he adds. "You know, [stuff that] possibly might not have a mass market, where open source hardware in small runs like those done by TAPR can really satisfy a market that wouldn't be satisfied otherwise."

The first actual products to use the finalized OHL are themselves "in the final steps of going to manufacture," according to Ackermann. "The products should be available within the first half of this year," he says.

Perens hopes that by popularizing open source for hardware, these products will also be an effective tool in the battle against digital rights management (DRM).

"I am worried about trusted platform and all of the onslaught of DRM," he says, "and I fear that there will be a day when you can't boot a non-trusted operating system on a modern motherboard."

Including, he says, Linux.

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