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Beerware is the Old Open Source Hardware

SparkFun discusses open source hardware and goes down an hardware memory lane. Checkout our spin on open and what projects are currently available for download.

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It was great to get picked up by Lady Ada, Hack-A-Day, Make (who's Nathan Sheidle?) for open sourcing our ClockIt kit. Thank you very much Make/Lady Ada/Hack-A-Day! Traffic is good. Here's some background on what's going on in the background.

Over burgers at Luger Steak House (amazing!) with my girlfriend, Limor, and PT, we discussed open source hardware - doesn't everyone? PT asked me if SparkFun was up for 'open sourcing' some of our products. I was confused because I thought we had been for awhile...

Flashback to 2004:

The old Serial ADXL board. SparkFun: Messing up designs through open source since '04.

The ADXL serial board tutorial was really the start of SparkFun open-ness. Back then, we didn't know it was called open source hardware. There were a few motives for disclosing the firmware and schematic for this now-retired product:

  • I messed up the design and figured other people could learn from my mistakes.
  • I wasn't sure the firmware was written all that well, so by disclosing it, I felt that people could see what an amateur I was and possibly make it better.
So frankly, we weren't being altruistic, we were trying to avoid having people mad at us for being poor engineers. Flash forward 5 years and we've learned a few more lessons about how to design better PCBs, but we continue to want to share.

We've been periodically posting engineering files, schematics, and firmware for some of our designs for an awfully long time. Not to mention the eagle footprints for a lot of the stuff we design around. Do a product search for 'eagle' to see the products with eagle files posted. I don't really push the fact that we're posting these files (do these constitute open source hardware?). We often forget to post the eagle files so if there's a board that you want to get the eagle files for, email us (spark at sparkfun com) and we should be able to get it posted.

Here are the potential reasons someone may post an 'Open Source Hardware' project:
  1. It's totally cool, and they want to share the project with the world, so that the world can benefit from it.
  2. Open Source is the new 'Zigbee' - sort of an empty buzz word in my opinion
  3. The design is possibly screwed up, so here's the source so you can't be too mad at us.
  4. There's no secret sauce inside, so here's the source.
  5. Here's the source cause we stole it from someone else.

You see, SparkFun is a part of all of these. We think what we do is cool, we love bandwagons, there's possibly errors on the layout, it's not all that original, and really, it's not all that original. But hey, if we can be the launching pad for you and your project, please feel free to use our stuff.

Here's the deal: all our boards are released (or should be - let us know if we forgot to mark the files) under the Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike v3.0 license. Why this license? It's horrible, but it's the best I can find.

Actually, I'd rather have a beerware license on stuff:

As long as you retain this notice you can do whatever you want with this stuff. If we meet some day, and you think this stuff is worth it, you can buy me a beer in return.

I used the beerware license on the ADXL project listed above back in 2004, and I swear, I've actually had a beer purchased for me! (Thanks Stephen!) You say, just one beer? I say it was possibly the best beer I've ever had.

Why not disallow commerical use in our CC license? Well, this sort of goes against what we're trying to accomplish here at SparkFun. You are welcome to take our stuff, make it better, and sell it like crazy. We hope you make ten million theoretical dollars. But you have to maintain attribution (stick our name on there somewhere). And you have to realize we can take your improvements and then come out with an ever better revision of our own. It's awesome the power of open source. Everyone should have the opportunity to make money, and the customer should always get a better product. If we limited the license to non-commercial use, it really hinders the entire process.

Let's say you use one of SparkFun eagle files, modify it, and create a new product. The license says you have to give 'attribution' What should attribution look like?


Here is a great example. Seeedstudio took our FIO board and 'remixed' it and is selling it. This is completely within the bounds of the license, and because they maintained attribution (they kept Shigeru's and my name on the silk and on the eagle files), they are cool in my book. Engineers may be socially awkward, but we still enjoy credit where credit is due. And in the case of SeeedStudio, they made some good improvements that we have incorporated back into new revisions of the FIO. Ahh the circle of life continues.

We do what will let us sleep well at night - we hope you do the same. If you use our eagle files, please maintain the license, give us a link back, a hat tip, a beer, etc.
And for your general open enjoyment, here is a short list of projects in which the eagle files are included (and have been for some time):






Comments 24 comments

  • I have a question about the license on the hardware. My limited understanding is that copyrights can apply to software, possibly firmware, but that a patent is required for an electronic circuit. When one publishes a schematic, the use of the graphic can be copyrighted, but not necessarily the circuit implementation. I did a very limited check on this a few years ago, and I am certainly not an authority on copyright/patent law. Does anyone know definitively when a patent is required rather than a copyright?
    (Please don’t infer that I want to avoid attribution or anything - I am just attempting to understand the actual laws).

    • Have you guys looked at TAPR Open Hardware License? It seems like it may be overkill, but is much more suited than the CC license (which is great for a lot of things, just not so much for hardware, as has been pointed out).

    • Gary, I’m think it could be more complicated if we consider the PCB design apart of the work. I consider this too. Some designs are hard work to do and require more time than the make the schematic. Look at http://www.uspto.gov/go/tac/doc/basic/trade_defin.htm to see a litle explanation about Trademark, Copyright and Patent. It’s say copyright protects an original artistic or literary work, and a patent protects an invention.
      Apart, SparkFun rocks with their designs but the goal it’s on the idea. And they had been work fine along years, but never that we cannot do too, don’t you?

      • My point is that the creative commons license is a copyright license. When applied to a circuit schematic, it is the schematic itself that can be copyrighted. Anybody can look at the schematic, and draw another one using the same components, and copy the design. The creative commons license is meaningless in this case. So, while I appreciate the intent of the folks at SparkFun, and love what they are doing, there attempts to “protect” circuits using this license are (in my unprofessional understanding), invalid. Once an unpatented schematic is published, the circuit in that schematic can be copied.
        Now - whether or not a particular layout might be protected - that is a different question. I can see where a copyright might cover that - but again, I am not knowledgeable in this subject matter - which is why I am asking these questions in a public forum.
        But again, SparkFun rocks. I certainly agree with that :-)

        • Thank you all for the kind words! You make my job great!
          Gary - I get what you are saying. We are using a software license and loosely using it on hardware.
          Hardware in our world changes too quickly to ever think about patenting something. We will never have the ability (or thirst for pain) to legally go after a violator. So we try to be a bit more flexible, and retain the ability to quickly modify, with the CC license.
          “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried.” -Winston Churchill
          CC-SAv3.0 license is like democracy, it’s bad, doesn’t fit, and is perhaps not enforceable, but it’s the best we currently have.
          In my mind, we are not trying to ‘protect’ our designs. We are trying to show people that it is ‘ok’ to use our stuff, and here are the rules (CC license).

          • Nate,
            I don’t want to be a downer and beat a dead horse … but …
            You say that “it is ‘ok’ to use our stuff, and here are the rules (CC license).” I guess I am saying that these are not the rules. In the U.S., the feds set the rules and my understanding is that copyright and patent law covers this. If I design a cold-fusion reactor and publish the design, and I don’t get a patent, then somebody can copy my design - no matter what license, CC or TAPR open hardware, I happen to slap on it.
            This is the understanding that I received when I spoke with a representative of the U.S. Copyright office 3-4 years ago. If SparkFun has consulted with attorneys regarding this, and the CC license is their direction, that would be worth knowing. But even then, until something like this were established in the courts, it seems tenuous at best to assume that using the CC licenses establishes any “rules” that need to be followed by anybody.

            • Gary, you’re never going to get a definitive answer in a public forum like this. We are not lawyers and even if we were, we aren’t contractually bound to you to answer the question in a definitively legal way.
              In essence, find a lawyer, pay them some money, and then ask the right questions. Only then will you have an answer and legal representation of the facts.

              • You bring up an excellent point. My limited understanding of this topic comes from a prior consultation a few years ago. But that is one lawyers opinion. Even with information obtained from a lawyer, I suspect that nothing really matters until the courts establish a precedent. As I don’t follow this field, I wondered if anybody knew what the facts were and if something had become established beyond one lawyers opinion. My only intention was to help raise awareness that any “faith” in this license might be unwarranted.

            • Gary, I think you bring up some great points. I think even without knowing the answer to your question we can draw some upper bounds on your legal responsibilities.
              (IANAL) Since they are licensing you an right to their copyright, you cannot be hurt by following their license. If their copyright is invalid, then you don’t have to follow the license, but it doesn’t hurt you to follow it.
              If you are wondering if you have to follow their license at all, you need to talk to a qualified lawyer. If there copyright is invalid, then you don’t legally need the license to use the schematics.

  • ummmm flashback to 2004 i was in Iraq.

  • It’s great that you are not excepting commercial use since that is the kind of use that most proves its worth to the world. Shouldn’t everyone hope others make $10M real dollars?
    - Jan

    • If you did 95% of the work, someone else did 5% and made $10M off it, and you didn’t get a cent, that wouldn’t bother you at all?

      • I think you’re missing the point ‘Hmmm’. To be jealous, angry, upset that someone ‘took’ an open source design and then made money on it is the wrong way to think about it.
        You’re talking about a 1 in 10M case, so let’s talk about a more practical case: someone who ‘took’ my design and made $100 off it -> SeeedStudio. They did good work: made the design better. And the community, and the FIO, and us indirectly, are better because of it.
        Now if the Univ of Texas took it, made $1M off it, and kept my name on it, I think I would be okay with that. I could point and say ‘hey, I was a part of that’.

        • I’d like to stick with that 1 in 10M case since even then, there is no justification for being bothered. We’re talking about information you choose to disclose, presumably because you think keeping it private won’t benefit you more than the joy of seeing others benefit from your work. You would never have gotten any of the $10M anyway, and how is one guy getting the $10M (meaning many others must have benefited, too) any different than a million poor students getting $10 of value from your contribution and not paying you anything for it?
          Being bothered by your scenario would be like giving someone an extra apple you have and then regretting it because they really enjoyed it. You were sick of apples, so you couldn’t possibly enjoy it as much: your only alternative was to let it rot. Those who want to make exceptions for “commercial” use are basically saying you can only have the apple as long as you don’t enjoy it too much.

  • I like Volvo’s attitude. In a commercial a while ago they talked about all the safety patents that have and although other mfgs have used their patented design, Volvo never enforced their patents. Stating that safety is too important to just keep to one car mfg.
    Thats how I feel about technology, I just want the technology to improve and get better.
    Like Suze says “people first…”

  • Nate, I’ll buy you a beer if you answer the FIO 368 question I posted over in the forums back in May. :)

    I’ll repeat my question here, because I really want to know:

    brennen’s Official SparkFun IRC Channel post, dated May 5, 2009, says “All of our Arduinos have now migrated to the ATMega328; the Pro, the Pro Mini, and ATMega328 with Arduino Bootloader. "
    I looked at the FIO I just bought from SparkFun and it has the SparkFun name on it and an ATMega168 on the board. That’s cool, that’s what I expected. But the question becomes:

    When will we be able to get a FIO from SparkFun with a 328 onboard?

    Thanks for your time…

  • You are in the good way, i hope to see more and more people with that spirit!

  • Ok so your hardware is open source and the schematics can be used for commercial use with attribution… GREAT!
    What about your Eagle Libs?
    Says in the first line “not to be used for commercial purposes” - so does that work reflexively and also mean that the circuit schematics that you are providing as open source can not be used commercially because the libs (your libs) used to make them can not be used commercially?
    Sounds like a technicality MSFT would pull out to cripple a competitor…

    • Touch?. We’ve been neglecting the licensing on our Eagle Footprints for a long time. How about this:
      Licensing: CC v3.0 Share-Alike You are welcome to use this library for commercial purposes. For attribution, we ask that when you begin to sell your device using our footprint, you email us with a link to the product being sold. We want bragging rights that we helped (in a very small part) to create your 8th world wonder. We would like the opportunity to feature your device on our homepage.

      • Great! So now we can use it?
        I’ve used the library and like it because it has everything in one place, & has certain components that are ambiguous in other libs. But, once I saw the old license, I immediately stopped using it because I knew if I ever wanted to rightfully sell a copy of the board, I would have to go back & fix it (which could screw something else up).
        Really great lib. though!
        Also nice to know a lot is licensed under CC… I felt the same way about some of the boards. (I can use it from reference, but I can’t base anything off it…)

      • Thank you!
        That is GREAT! (not that I have that brilliant idea yet, but…)

  • Keep up the good work :-)