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An open hardware license from the folks who brought you the web

Jul 8, 2011 — by LinuxDevices Staff — from the LinuxDevices Archive — views

CERN announced version 1.1 of its Open Hardware License (OHL), a legal framework “designed to facilitate knowledge exchange across the electronic design community. The license is intended to become for hardware what the GPL (General Public License) is for software, the organization says.

CERN (Organisation Européenne pour la Recherche Nucléaire — the European Organization for Nuclear Research) operates the world's largest particle physics laboratory. But the Geneva, Switzerland-based organization is also the place where, more than 20 years ago, Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web — ultimately facilitating information exchange on a scale that had never been imagined.

Now, at a time when tech giants seem to spend more time suing one another over patents than they do innovating, CERN is promoting a legal framework that will allow hardware designs to be shared, too. According to the organization, the OHL will protect designers from legal liability, provide a mechanism for them to get paid for their work, and allow anyone to commercialize the results.

Last March, CERN released an "alpha" version of the OHL (along with the pictured mascot), and version 1.1 was published on July 7.

It now "integrates feedback received from the community in order to follow generally accepted principles of the free and open source movements, and purports to make the CERN OHL even more easily usable by entities other than CERN," according to Myriam Ayass, the CERN legal adviser who is the license's principal author.

In a statement, CERN described the OHL as follows:

In the spirit of knowledge and technology dissemination, the CERN OHL was created to govern the use, copying, modification and distribution of hardware design documentation, and the manufacture and distribution of products. Hardware design documentation includes schematic diagrams, designs, circuit or circuit-board layouts, mechanical drawings, flow charts and descriptive texts, as well as other explanatory material.

Ayass added, "The concept of 'open-source hardware' or 'open hardware' is not yet as well known or widespread as the free software or open-source software concept. However, it shares the same principles: anyone should be able to see the source (the design documentation in case of hardware), study it, modify it and share it."

The OHL is related to another CERN project known as the Open Hardware Repository (OHR), described as a "place on the web where electronics designers can collaborate on open-hardware designs." It's said the OHR already hosts more than 40 projects from institutes that include CERN and the University of Cape Town.

One sample project is White Rabbit, aimed at creating an Ethernet switch that provides precision timing. The aim is to be able to synchronize more than 1000 nodes with sub-ns accuracy over fiber and copper lengths of up to 10km (about six miles), according to an OHR web page.

Javier Serrano (right), a CERN engineer who is described as the founder of the OHR, wrote last month in the CERN Courier that "The drive towards open hardware was largely motivated by well meaning envy of our colleagues who develop Linux device drivers. They are part of a very large community of competent designers who share their knowledge and time in order to come up with the best possible operating system … We wanted that, and found out that there was no intrinsic reason why hardware development should be any different."

As noted in a July 8 article by Ars Technica's Ryan Paul, the OHL isn't the first-ever open hardware license. For example, the Tucson Amateur Packet Radio group created one in 2007. Also relevant is the Open Hardware Summit's Open Hardware Definition 1.0, released last February.

Further information

The full text of the OHL, version 1.1, may be found on the CERN website. Details of an open hardware workshop to be held Oct. 9 in Grenoble, France (during the the 13th International Conference on Accelerator and Large Experimental Physics Control Systems) can be found here.

Jonathan Angel can be reached at [email protected] and followed at

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