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Re: [libreplanet-discuss] Equivalent of GPLv3 for hardware???

From: Dave Rolek
Subject: Re: [libreplanet-discuss] Equivalent of GPLv3 for hardware???
Date: Sat, 02 Apr 2016 22:30:10 -0400
User-agent: Mozilla/5.0 (X11; Linux x86_64; rv:24.0) Gecko/20100101 Thunderbird/24.2.0

On 04/02/2016 09:38 PM, Pen-Yuan Hsing wrote:
On 03/04/16 01:38, Dave Rolek wrote:
On 03/30/2016 07:51 PM, IngeGNUe wrote:
On 03/30/16 18:38, Pen-Yuan Hsing wrote:
On 30/03/16 13:45, Mike Gerwitz wrote:
On Wed, Mar 30, 2016 at 12:23:26 +0100, Pen-Yuan Hsing wrote:
I really like the idea of copyleft and licenses such as the GPLv3.
What is
the closest equivalent of GPLv3 for hardware?
This is rms' position:
Thanks Mike for the link, I just took another look at his essay again.
as I understand it, he thinks the situation for hardware is different
but generally recommends the GPLv3 for hardware *designs*. RMS also
correctly points out the problem of patents in hardware, which I alluded to (but didn't make clear) in the original question. My understanding of this problem is that even if you release your hardware under a copyleft
license, the license or only apply to one embodiment of your hardware
because it is one single expression of a work?

However, since patents require prior art, if you create something and
released its design and the physical portions under a copyleft license,
you are essentially putting all of that into the "prior art" realm,
which would prevent others from patenting it? Would this work to attain
the equivalent of copyleft for hardware?

IngeGNUe also mentioned releasing the hardware under CC BY-SA, which is
essentially a form of copyleft (please correct me if I am wrong). How
does that compare to releasing the hardware under GPLv3? Or is there
another license that addresses this issue, which leads to my original
question of if there's an hardware compatible license that is in the
*spirit* of copyleft? I say spirit because copyright (and hence copyleft
per set) might not be the biggest issue for hardware.

This might become a real issue for me in the coming months since I'm
trying to sign up for a maker/hacker related meeting to discuss and
brainstorm hardware projects...


If you'll forgive the "open source" phrasing -- you'll have to live with it on many of these hardware endeavors :) -- there are a bunch of people
in your shoes too:

There do exist "open" hardware licenses and maybe some of them are

This is really worrying:

"But actually, the situation is very different for hardware design,
since copyleft relies on copyright, and hardware is (in most cases) not
protected by copyright law." -

This is useful history, the problems have been going on for years: <--- I have NEVER heard of
these people until now, no idea if they have a good reputation... IF
they are good, then maybe they will know someone on the other side of
the Atlantic.


I haven't read all of the thread nor all of rms's stance on free
hardware, but I am surprised no one mentioned the concept of patentleft:

I know very little about it (so don't ask me for help!), and I expect
that patenting something will cost a lot, but it is a consideration if
you want to tackle a specific part of the nonfree hardware battle.

And hmm... per Wikipedia references for the article, it looks like rms
*has* commented indirectly on patentleft in the past (1999):

Hope that helps!

Thanks IngeGNUe and Dave for the information and links.

The patentleft idea is interesting, and RMS' response that the Wikipedia article links to is IMHO essentially the same as the one posted on

If I am understanding the Wikipedia article correctly, patentleft means you explicitly license your patent royalty free under the condition that licensees share-alike. I think this is indeed the closest equivalent of copyleft for copyrightable material.

I agree with RMS' response that the problem with patentleft is that it is very expensive to get a patent in the first place. RMS also said that even if you release, say, the schematic for a piece of hardware you designed under a copyleft license (such as GPL or CC BY-SA), you are just doing that to the *drawing*, not the design itself.

However, even if copyleft only applies to your drawing, the idea/design *is* revealed/published, which means it becomes *prior art*. AFAIK in the EU and US, if prior art is already out there, then something becomes ineligible for a patent. In this case, wouldn't publishing your design (even though only the drawing itself can be copylefted) essentially make it free as in free speech because no one else can lock it up with patents anymore?

One possible problem I can then foresee is that even though your design is libre, that does not ensure derivative designs remain that way. In other words, even if you publish your hardware designs to prevent them from being patented, you might be inadvertently releasing them under the equivalent of push over free (but not copyleft) licenses as described by RMS:

Anyway, would I be correct to say that to make a hardware design free (as in freedom), you can only do one of the following:

(1) Patent it (for lots of money), the apply the patentleft approach so all derivative designs are essentially libre as well.

(2) Publish the design so no one else can patent it, while understanding that derivative designs might still be patented.

Finally, RMS said that since making copies of hardware is costly compared to software, free hardware is not as urgent of an issue right now. That might be true, but I propose that since technology will progress and one day copying hardware might become quick, it *is* a good idea to set a good precedent and start a trend asap to ensure that hardware designs will be free.

Love to hear your critiques.

Hi Pen-Yuan,

I think you summarized this pretty well; what you wrote jives with my understanding of patentleft and the bits I've read of the thread and rms's stance on free hardware design.

One thing I forgot to mention... (I thought about this pretty recently myself, actually - coincidental that this thread came about around the same time. :))

My understanding with patents is that any public idea/design disclosure will diminish/eliminate the possibility for a patent. Brief (hopefully trustworthy) article also found at Wikipedia:

That puts your options (1) and (2) at odds - option (1) cannot be elevated to option (2) in most cases. As the article states (and according to my prior recollection), the US gives a "grace period" of one year after the first public disclosure, during which the patent can be obtained, but the patent may no longer be obtainable for most other countries.

Furthermore, in order to develop something sufficiently to get a decent patent for patentleft, I would think it needs to be developed "in secret", i.e. with NDAs..., in order to avoid the global patent problems with disclosure. That unfortunately goes against what I think most of us in the FLOSS community would prefer most: free/libre+open development as early as possible (potentially from the start).

I don't know of any initiatives for a better system to tackle the problem, but I would love to hear of any anyone is aware of :)


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