CC Science → Hardware

Photo of a modular, hackable biology lab automation system with a pipettor, vial handler, and centrifuge by Modular Science released under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

Project Goal

Massively-distributed, sensor-based hardware can revolutionize behavioral, environmental and public health data collection. However, a lack of clarity, custom and choices regarding the intellectual property (IP) of hardware poses challenges for hardware developers limiting collaboration and reuse.

Funded by a generous grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, we are evaluating the available open licensing options for their strengths and weaknesses, with an emphasis on distributed sensing hardware. Our goal is to produce a whitepaper that will become the authoritative reference for open hardware developers when choosing their licensing strategy.


As there is no single hardware license that is dominant or obviously superior, and because not all developers have the same needs, the choices facing them are scarce and difficult. This project will discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each of the tools, identify any barriers to adoption, and analyze the legal implications of each, with special emphasis on open distributed sensing hardware, and the special challenges of ensuring data integrity in that context. The identified tools include the CERN and TAPR licenses, the Creative Commons Model Patent License and the Defensive Patent License, hardware certification programs such as the Bluetooth Special Interest Group, WiFi Alliance, and the International Amateur Radio Union, trademark regimes (Mozilla Public License), clickwrap and website Terms of Service (GitHub, etc.), and we will look at sui generis protection schemes such as the United States’ protection for Integrated Circuits Mask Works. Other tools and approaches may be identified as the the project progresses.

Proposed Activities

Our methodology will begin with cataloging our understanding of legal options for managing open hardware, using the legal and business experience of the authors. We will interview open hardware developers and academics to ensure that we fully understand the needs of open hardware community. This includes identifying the most confusing aspects of the legal tools, and evaluating whether to give them special attention in the paper. The research phase includes analyzing various legal, legal-academic resources as well as non-legal research, such as the experiences of the open hardware developers.

Upon completion of the white paper, a workshop will be organized to publicize the white paper and solicit feedback from legal, legal academic, and non-legal stakeholders. Feedback from the workshop will be incorporated into the white paper as necessary.

Expected Products and Outcomes

All information gathered will be synthesized and drafted into a white paper using iterative collaboration amongst the authors. This may include getting feedback on clarity and usefulness from hardware developers. The white paper’s quality will be assessed by how well it allows a hardware developer to understand the various legal options, and use the information to decide on their open hardware strategy. The white paper should be relevant to all open hardware projects, but the emphasis is on the difficult use-case of ensuring data integrity in the context of open distributed sensing hardware.


  • Ari Douglas has a background in information security and intellectual property law. While at MakerBot industries he oversaw all aspects of the company's Intellectual Property strategy, including Open Source issues. He currently consults for early-stage startups regarding business operations and intellectual property strategy. Ari will be performing legal research and drafting the white paper.
  • Puneet Kishor is the Manager of Science and Data Policy at Creative Commons where he works on all aspects of the scientific information lifecycle to make it systemically open and collaborative. Puneet will supervise the project, provide technical insight, and also be in close liaison with the Creative Commons legal team.
  • Sonaar Luthra is the co-founder of Water Canary, is an active member of the open hardware community, and an expert in water quality sensing, remote sensing & scientific instrumentation. Sonaar will guide the group’s evaluation of the practical implications, advantages and drawbacks of the various mechanisms currently available while illuminating the needs of open sensing that remain to be addressed.
  • Jason Schultz is the co-creator of the DPL and has over a decade of experience advising creators, innovators, and entrepreneurs on IP licensing strategies with an emphasis on open source and open access approaches. He also has extensive experience working with policy makers on patent and copyright reform and representing public interest groups in the federal and state court systems. Jason will offer the team a unique perspective on the potential for reform in existing frameworks as well as how broader reforms might be pursued by establishing new ones.