[License-discuss] CERN Open Hardware Licence 2.0

Andrew Katz andrew.katz at moorcrofts.com
Thu Feb 20 13:49:40 UTC 2020

Hi All

I’m emailing to gauge reactions with a view to potentially submitting the suite of CERN Open Hardware Licences for OSI approval. Version 2 has been several years in gestation, and after some major re-writes, consulting with many different communities in the world of open hardware, and putting a lot of work, we think we’re ready to release Version 2 to the world. You can see the relevant drafts and supporting materials here: https://www.ohwr.org/project/cernohl/wikis/CERN-OHL-v2-draft

There is no longer a single CERN-OHL: it’s become clear to us that different use-cases have different needs, and so do different communities, so we have now produced a suite of three closely-related licences, CERN-OHL-S (which is the successor to the previous versions), CERN-OHL-W (which provides a weaker, more LGPL-like implementation of its reciprocal/copyleft obligations), and CERN-OHL-P (which is a permissive variant, intended to operate in a way similar to Apache).

The obvious objection is that the CERN-OHL licences are hardware licences, so why would we want to submit them for review as Open Source Software Licences? The reason is that hardware and software are tending to converge. Much of the hardware for which people are adopting the CERN-OHL also has unarguably software elements, such as firmware, and we wanted it to be possible for users of the CERN-OHL to license their entire design, including the software elements, under the same licence, if they so wished.

Another more subtle reason is that in the domain of silicon chip design, code written in hardware description languages like Verilog looks very similar to computer software, and already a great deal of HDL designs have been released under OSI-approved licences such as BSD and Apache. Verilog code is compiled (if the target is an FPGA) into a bitstream which is then loaded onto a chip (the FPGA) which then responds to inputs and outputs dependent on the bitstream. The language and the bitstream exist solely in the digital, non-physical domain. It’s difficult to come up with a definition of “software” which does not include HDL, but which does include code such as SQL, or font description languages (note that the SIL Open Font License is OSI approved).

The fact that some of the software licences used to license hardware designs (such as BSD and Apache) are OSI-approved is an important factor in their adoption, and we believe that, should the CERN OHL suite of licences be so approved, then this will aid the development of open hardware in general.

A further factor is that CERN-OHL in the -W and -S variants potentially offer an interesting open licensing model purely in the software domain, including for use in containers (e.g. for use in Docker), by allowing a licensor to choose a reciprocal licence which nonetheless allows components within the container to be licensed under more restrictive (e.g. proprietary) licences. I can expand on this point on request.

We’re incredibly grateful for the invaluable input we’ve had from a broad range of people from the open communities, both hardware and software, and we’re looking forward very much to hearing what people on this list have to say. If you don’t want to comment publicly, please feel to message us privately (contact details can be found by following the link at https://www.ohwr.org/project/cernohl/wikis/CERN-OHL-v2-draft).

All the best


Andrew Katz

Moorcrofts LLP

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