Archive for January, 2012

Years of open hardware licenses

Tuesday, January 10th, 2012

Last in a list of the top 10 free/open source software legal developments in 2011 (emphasis added):

Open Hardware License. The open hardware movement received a boost when CERN published an Open Hardware License (“CERN OHL”). The CERN OHL is drafted as a documentation license which is careful to distinguish between documentation and software (which is not licensed under the CERN OHL) The license is “copyleft” and, thus, similar to GPLv2 because it requires that all modifications be made available under the terms of the CERN OHL. However, the license to patents, particularly important for hardware products, is ambiguous. This license is likely to the first of a number of open hardware licenses, but, hopefully, the open hardware movement will keep the number low and avoid “license proliferation” which has been such a problem for open source software.

But the CERN OHL isn’t the first “open hardware license”. Or perhaps it is the nth first. Several free software inspired licenses intended specifically for design and documentation have been created over the last decade or so. I recall encountering one dating back to the mid-1990s, but can’t find a reference now. Discussion of open hardware licenses was hot at the turn of the millennium, though most open hardware projects from that time didn’t get far, and I can’t find a license that made it to “1.0”.

People have been wanting to do for hardware what the GNU General Public License has done for software and trying to define open hardware since that timeframe. They keep on wanting (2006) and trying (2007, 2011 comments).

Probably the first arguably “high quality” license drafted specifically for open hardware is the (2007). The CERN OHL might be the second such. There has never been consensus on the best license to use for open hardware. Perhaps this is why CERN saw fit to create yet another (incompatible copyleft at that — incompatible with TAPR OHL, GPL, and BY-SA), but there still isn’t consensus in 2012.

Licenses primarily used for software (usually [L]GPL, occasionally BSD, MIT, or Apache) have also been used for open hardware since at least the late 1990s — and much more so than any license created specifically for open hardware. CC-BY-SA has been used by Arduino since at least 2008 and since 2009.

In 2009 the primary drafter of the TAPR OHL published a paper with a rationale for the license. By my reading of the paper, the case for a license specific to hardware seems pretty thin — hardware design and documentation files, and distribution of printed circuit boards seem a lot like program source and executables, and mostly subject to copyright. It also isn’t clear to me why the things TAPR OHL handles differently than most open source software licenses (disclaims strictly being a copyright license, instead wanting to serve as a clickwrap contract; attempts to describe requirements functionally, instead of legally, to avoid describing explicitly the legal regime underlying requirements; limited patent grant applies to “possessors” not just contributors) might not be interesting for software licenses, if they are interesting at all, nor why features generally rejected for open source software licenses shouldn’t also be rejected for open hardware (email notification to upstream licensors; a noncommercial-only option — thankfully deprecated late last year).

Richard Stallman’s 1999 note about free hardware seems more clear and compelling than the TAPR paper, but I wish I could read it again without knowing the author. Stallman wrote:

What this means is that anyone can legally draw the same circuit topology in a different-looking way, or write a different HDL definition which produces the same circuit. Thus, the strength of copyleft when applied to circuits is limited. However, copylefting HDL definitions and printed circuit layouts may do some good nonetheless.

In a thread from 2007 about yet another proposed open hardware license, three people who generally really know what they’re talking about each wondered why a hardware-specific license is needed: Brian Behlendorf, Chris DiBona, and Simon Phipps. The proposer withdrew and decided to use the MIT license (a popular non-copyleft license for software) for their project.

My bias, as with any project, would be to use a GPL-compatible license. But my bias may be inordinately strong, and I’m not starting a hardware project.

One could plausibly argue that there are still zero quality open hardware specific licenses, as the upstream notification requirement is arguably non-open, and the CERN OHL also contains an upstream notification requirement. Will history repeat?

Addendum: I just noticed the existence of an open hardware legal mailing list, probably a good venue to follow if you’re truly interested in these issues. The organizer is Bruce Perens, who is involved with TAPR and is convinced non-copyright mechanisms are absolutely necessary for open hardware. His attempt to bring rigor to the field and his decades of experience with free and open source software are to be much appreciated in any case.

CSS text overlay image, e.g. for attribution and license notice

Sunday, January 8th, 2012

A commenter called me on providing inadequate credit for an map image I used on this blog. I’ve often seen map credits overlaid on the bottom right of maps, so I decided to try that. I couldn’t find an example of using CSS to overlay text on an image that only showed the absolute minimum needed to achieve the effect, and explained why. Below is my attempt.

Example 1

The above may be a good example of when to not use a text overlay (there is already text at the bottom of the image), but the point is to demonstrate the effect, not to look good. I have an image and I want to overlay «Context+Colophon» at the bottom right of the image. Here’s the minimal code:

<div style="position:relative;z-index:0;width:510px">
  <img src=""/>
  <div style="position:absolute;z-index:1;right:0;bottom:0">
    <a href="">Context</a>+<a href="">Colophon</a>


The outer div creates a container which the text overlay will be aligned with. A position is necessary to enable z-index, which specifies how objects will stack. Here position:relative as I want the image and overlay to flow with the rest of the post, z-index:0 as the container is at the bottom of the stack. I specify width:510px as that’s how wide the image is, and without hardcoding the size of the div, the overlay as specified will float off to the right rather than align with the image. There’s nothing special about the img; it inherits from the outer div.

The inner div contains and styles the text I want to overlay. position:absolute as I will specify an absolute offset from the container, right:0;bottom:0, and z-index:1 to place above the image. Finally, I close both divs.

That’s it. I know precious little CSS; please tell me what I got wrong.

Example 2

Above is the image that prompted this post, with added attribution and license notice. Code:

<div style="z-index:0;position:relative;width:560px"
  <a href=";lon=-122.2776&amp;zoom=14&amp;layers=Q">
    <img src=""/></a>
  <div style="position:absolute;z-index:1;right:0;bottom:0;">
      © <a rel="cc:attributionURL"
           href=";lon=-122.2776&amp;zoom=14&amp;layers=Q">OpenStreetMap contributors</a>,
        <a rel="license"


With respect to the achieving the text overlay, there’s nothing in this example not in the first. Below I explain annotations added that (but are not required by) fulfillment of OpenStreetMap/CC-BY-SA attribution and license notice.

The xmlns:ccprefix, and even that may be superfluous, given cc: as a default prefix.

about sets the subject of subsequent annotations.

small isn’t an annotation, but does now seem appropriate for legal notices, and is usually rendered nicely.

rel="cc:attributionURL" says that the value of the href property is the link to use for attributing the subject. property="cc:attributionName" says that the text (“OpenStreetMap contributors”) is the name to use for attributing the subject. rel="license" says the value of its href property is the subject’s license.

If you’re bad and not using HTTPS-Everywhere (referrer not sent due to protocol change; actually I’m bad for not serving this blog over https), clicking on BY-SA above might obtain a snippet of HTML with credits for others to use. Or you can copy and paste the above code into RDFa Distiller or checkrdfa to see that the annotations are as I’ve said.

Addendum: If you’re reading this in a feed reader or aggregator, there’s a good chance inline CSS is stripped — text intended to overlay images will appear under rather than overlaying images. Click through to the post in order to see the overlays work.

How to be a democrat

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2012

How to be a dictator isn’t just about politics — or rather it is about politics, everywhere: “It doesn’t matter whether you are a dictator, a democratic leader, head of a charity or a sports organisation, the same things go on.”

The article ends with:

Dictators already know how to be dictators—they are very good at it. We want to point out how they do it so that it’s possible to think about reforms that can actually have meaningful consequences.

I don’t know what if any reforms the authors propose in their book, The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics, but good on them encouraging a thinking in terms of meaningful consequences.

I see no hope for consequential progress against dictatorship in the United States. In 2007 I scored Obama and Biden very highly on their responses to a survey on executive power. Despite this, once in power, their administration has been a disaster, as Glenn Greenwald painstakingly and painfully documents.

I haven’t bothered scoring a 2011 candidates survey on executive power. I’m glad the NYT got responses from some of the candidates, but it seemed less interesting than four years ago, perhaps because only the Republican nomination is contested. My quick read: Paul’s answers seem acceptable, all others worship executive power. Huntsman’s answers seem a little more nuanced than the rest, but pointing in the same direction. Romney’s are in the middle of a very tight pack. In addition to evincing power worship, too many of Perry’s answers start with the exact same sentence, reinforcing the impression he’s not smart. Gingrich’s answers are the most brazen.

Other than envious destruction of power (the relevant definition and causes of which being tenuous, making effective action much harder) and gradual construction of alternatives, how can one be a democrat? I suspect more accurate information and more randomness are important — I’ll sometimes express this very specifically as enthusiasm for futarchy and sortition — but I’m also interested in whatever small increases in accurate information and randomness might be feasible, at every scale and granularity — global governance to small organizations, event probabilities to empirically validated practices.

Along the lines of the last, one of the few business books I’ve ever enjoyed is Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths And Total Nonsense: Profiting From Evidence-Based Management, much of which cuts against leadership cult myths. Coincidentally, one of that book’s co-authors recently blogged about evidence that random selection of leaders can enhance group performance.

Which counterfactual public domain day?

Sunday, January 1st, 2012

1. Each January 1, many people note a number of interesting works that become free of copyright restrictions in many jurisdictions, but a 1998 act means none will in the U.S. until at least 2019.

2. The Center for the Study of the Public Domain provides another counterfactual, imagining policy not pre-1998, but pre-1976 (act; effective 1978), which at the top states (repeated at Boing Boing, which inspired this post’s title) works from 1955 or before would be free of copyright restrictions.

3. But as the CSPD page points out further down (see “the public domain snatchers”), the pre-1976 policy also would’ve meant many works from 1983 or before would now be free of copyright restrictions, as the policy allowed for 28 years of restriction, with an optional renewal of 28 years. Historically copyright holders did not bother renewing 85% of works.

4. The aforementioned CSPD page doesn’t note, but their FAQ does, that prior to 1989 a copyright notice was required in order for a work to be restricted. The FAQ says “By some estimates, 90% of works did not include this copyright notice and immediately entered the public domain.” A counterfactual taking this into account would have not only a robust January 1, but every day would be public domain day.

(Of course as I noted last year, every day is public domain day to the extent you make it so, no counterfactual required. But defaults really matter.)

5. Any of the above counterfactuals would be tremendous improvements over society’s current malgovernance of the intellectual commons. But they’re all boring. They are much more difficult to conceive, but the counterfactuals I’d prefer to look are not ones with recent rent seeking undone, but ones attempting to characterize worlds with optimal copyright restriction, which is itself under-explored: no extensions? 15 years? 1 year? Maybe 0? The thing about this sort of counterfactual is not the precise duration, nature, or existence of restriction, but in changing how we think about the public domain — not some old works that it is cool that we can now cooperate around to preserve and breathe new life into without legal threat (or uncool if we can’t) — but about how the world would be changed in a dynamic way with much better policy. I bet we wouldn’t even miss that 9-figure Hollywood dreck if such disappeared (I really doubt it would, but here’s to hoping) that most writers in this field must genuflect to and that are used as the excuse to destroy, because whatever would exist would be our culture, and everyone loves their culture (which of course may be subculture built on superficial or even real rejection of such, etc). It would just also be our culture in another way as well, one compatible with free speech and more equal distribution of wealth, in addition to practical things like a non-broken Internet.