Open source hardware challenges current licensing models

The open source movement is entering a new era with industry heavyweights such as IBM and Sun Microsystems announcing that for the first time in their companies’ histories they will make the documentation for some of their hardware open source.IBM was among the first to do so in October 2004 when it announced the opening of the IBM eServer BladeCenter specification under the Berkley Software Design (BSD) license. In September 2004, IBM launched the OpenPower project to allow Linux developers to create, test and support Power 5-based OpenPower servers.
The Linux server line was priced to compete with Sun’s UltraSparc chip and Intel’s and AMD’s x86 chip sets, Xeon and Opteron.
More recently, Sun made headlines in December when it announced it will be releasing the specifications — including the design, written in Verilog hardware description language — for its newest UltraSparc-based chip, the UltraSparc T1 processor. The specs will be made available through the OpenSparc project in the first quarter of this year, according to the company.
Toronto technology lawyer Rob Hyndman said the Sun announcement represents the next logical step in the open source movement and is encouraging for tech companies thinking about other ways of commoditizing the intellectual property that they develop.
“You can look at it as a marketing ploy by Sun to get their equipment everywhere — they’re a for-profit company,” said Hyndman. “But you can also look at it as an almost breathtaking first step in the development of a new business model and the natural extension of the open source software movement.”
Hyndman said examples of this are also emerging in other realms outside of IT such as biotechnology with the open sourcing of genetic code.
Eben Moglen, general counsel to the Free Software Foundation (FSF), a not-for-profit organization that promotes computer users’ right to use, study, copy, modify and redistribute computer programs, said the announcements are creating a new kind of environment of developers.
“There are a lot of people out there that can constitute a community for hardware design and construction in much of the same way that 10 years ago there were a lot of programmers around the world that could constitute a community for software design and construction,” said Moglen. The Foundation is set to release the first discussion draft of the new GNU GPL, which was last revised in 1991.
The Foundation’s GNU GPL, however, is not to be confused with the open source movement. In an e-mail to, FSF founder Richard Stallman explicitly states how the open source campaign was launched in 1998 to reject what Stallman describes as the Foundation’s values of freedom and community.
“I founded the free software movement, a movement for freedom to co-operate,” Stallman wrote. “Open source was a reaction against our idealism. We are still here and the open source people have not wiped us out.”
Sun, which to date has veered away from the GNU GPL model, has yet to announce what licensing model it will adopt for the project but the company says it would be one that’s approved by the Open Source Initiative (OSI).
“The issue with open source hardware is a little bit different than software in that the big advantage of the open source movement, aside from its community, is that people can actually play with the source code,” said Brian Down, chief technical officer for client solutions at Sun Microsystems of Canada.
Hyndman, however, said one question about the Sun announcement that remains to be answered is what exactly Sun means when it tells developers to do what they want with the specs.
“They want to make sure people can optimize applications and operating systems for use with the chip, improve hardware that incorporates the chip so that other manufacturers can develop the chip and variations of it,” said Hyndman, who is also a CIPS member.
“That suggests something quite far away from the GPL, which really would be an impediment to people who would want to commercially deploy what they did with what’s being open sourced.”

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