CERN Open Hardware License

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= The CERN license was created in 2011 by employees of CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, in order to allow groups across organizations to collaborate on hardware projects.The CERN license also includes copyleft provisions.


Marina Giampietro:

"In the spirit of knowledge sharing and dissemination, this licence governs the use, copying, modification and distribution of hardware design documentation, and the manufacture and distribution of products," explains Myriam Ayass, legal adviser of the Knowledge and Technology Transfer Group at CERN and author of the CERN OHL. The documentation that the OHL refers to includes schematic diagrams, designs, circuit or circuit-board layouts, mechanical drawings, flow charts and descriptive texts, as well as other explanatory material. The documentation can be in any medium, including – but not limited to – computer files and representations on paper, film, or other media.

The introduction of the CERN OHL is indeed a novelty in which the long-standing practice of sharing hardware design has adopted a clear policy for the management of intellectual property. "The CERN–OHL is to hardware what the General Public Licence is to software. It defines the conditions under which a licensee will be able to use or modify the licensed material," explains Ayass. "The concept of ‘open-source hardware’ or ‘open hardware’ is not yet as well known or widespread as the free software or open-source software concept," she continues. "However, it shares the same principles: anyone should be able to see the source (the design documentation in case of hardware), study it, modify it and share it. In addition, if modifications are made and distributed, it must be under the same licence conditions – this is the ‘persistent’ nature of the licence, which ensures that the whole community will continue benefiting from improvements, in the sense that everyone will in turn be able to make modifications to these improvements." (

Status: CERN OHLv2

Andrew Katz:

""In our drafting of the CERN OHLv2, we were often asked to incorporate superficially desirable conditions, like a condition requiring any item made from the design to be energy efficient, or to use sustainable materials, or to be easily repairable. We resisted the temptation to incorporate these, for the reasons discussed above. Instead, we suggest that organisations could apply a certification, to say that certain items of hardware meet sustainability standards, or are certified repairable. That is, a certification which is in parallel with the licensing requirement, and in order to use the relevant certification mark, the distributor of the hardware would have to be licensed by the relevant body. In effect, control would be through a combination of community norms, and legal remedies akin to trademark infringement. There is no reason why such a scheme could be extended to software." (


Marina Giampietro:

"Despite these similarities, the application of "openness" in the two domains – software and hardware – differs substantially because of the nature of the "products". "In the case of hardware, physical resources must be committed for the creation of physical devices," Ayass points out. "The CERN OHL thus specifically states that manufacturers of such products should not imply any kind of endorsement or responsibility on the part of the designer(s) when producing and/or selling hardware based on the design documents. This is important in terms of legal risks associated with engaging in open-source hardware, and properly regulating this is a prerequisite for many of those involved."

The OHR also aims to promote a new business model in which companies can play a variety of roles, design open hardware in collaboration with other designers or clients and get paid for that work. As Serrano explains: "Companies can also commercialize the resulting designs, either on their own or as part of larger systems. Customers, on their side, can debug designs and improve them very efficiently, ultimately benefiting not only their own systems but also the companies and other clients."

"The fact that the designs are ‘open’ also means that anyone can manufacture the product based on this design – from individuals to research institutes to big companies – and commercialize it. This is one approach of technology transfer that nicely combines dissemination of the technology and of the accompanying knowledge," adds Ayass. This combining of an innovative business model and the OHL is finding a positive response in the commercial world. "We are very excited because we are proving that there is no contradiction between commercial hardware and openness," says Serrano, who concludes: "The CERN OHL will be a great tool for us to collaborate with other institutes and companies." (


'In July 2011, CERN (the renowned European Organization for Nuclear Research) issued a press release declaring that it had created an open source hardware license (CERN OHL). On this announcement, Javier Serrano, an engineer at CERN’s Beams Department and the founder of the Open Hardware Repository(3), explained the decision thus: “By sharing designs openly, CERN expects to improve the quality of designs through peer review and to guarantee their users – including commercial companies – the freedom to study, modify and manufacture them, leading to better hardware and less duplication of efforts” (CERN 2011)⁠. The license was initially drafted to address CERN-specific concerns, such as tracing the impact of the organization’s research, but in its current form it can be used by anyone developing open source hardware (Ayass 2011)⁠." (

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