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Say I have an invention (an electronics project or something alike) and I want to publish it, its way of working and my process of creating it online for others to be able to recreate it for themselves, can I publish it under a license, similar to GPL or Apache, online?
The idea would be to avoid having to attain a patent while retaining the rights to my invention and preventing others from selling it, without restricting individuals from building the project for themselves and sharing their creations online.

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I think you misunderstand how a license works. A license does not forbid any action - it fundamentally can't. But licenses can permit specific things that are otherwise forbidden by law.

This is why licenses are typically seen alongside patents and copyrights. Patent and copyright law forbid certain actions, and licenses can allow those again. The benefit of licenses is that these permissions can be conditional, e.g. on payment.

For instance, the GPL does not forbid you from distributing binaries. Copyright law does. But the GPL allows you to distribute those binaries conditional on the distribution of the corresponding source code.

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You could attempt to protect your design by copyright. The physical layout of a circuit board is protected by copyright but, given a schematic, a new layout that does not violate copyright can be generated almost automatically as long as it does not involve very high frequencies or sensitive combinations of analog and digital sections.

The image of a schematic is protected by copyright but not the ideas inherent in the schematic. Someone creating a netlist from your schematic would not be copying the image but would be extracting the information, which would not violate copyright. For that netlist they create a new circuit board and they have a clean product.

In summary, copyright can only protect against use of your circuit board artwork.

If you give it a catchy name that customers attach value to (Arduino) then you have some protection by trademark. They can clone your device but they can’t call it by your trademarked name.

Regarding patents - they can protect clever circuits but if your project doesn’t innovate in some aspect of circuit design you will not get a patent. One doesn’t patent a whole project, just novel non-obvious aspects of the project.

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  • So a patent would be the only effective way of preventing a third party from selling my circuit (let's say it is an actual innovation and viable) and there are no equivalent licenses that prevent misuse as there are when developing software? Mar 20 at 17:56
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If you publish it in a publication that is recognized by the various patent authorities, the invention becomes ineligible for patenting, so you will achieve your objective. (The US has, or had, a 1 year grace period, so you could apply for a US patent up to 1 year after publication; I'm not sure if that's still true.) Only the inventor can apply for a patent. If someone reads your publication and obtains a patent, that patent could be invalidated on the grounds that there is "prior art".

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    The U.S one year grace period still exists but was weakened in the 2012 AIA law. A third party trying to patent one or more aspects of the OP’s design would not result in a robust patent primarily because they aren’t the inventor, as you point out. Mar 20 at 14:26
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    Also, patent authorities recognize any publicly available publication in any language at any time in history. Mar 20 at 15:00
  • The original inventor would be unable to obtain a valid patent if the application were submitted after publication (or in the US, 1 year after publication). So it's not just 3rd parties who are barred. Mar 20 at 15:01
  • You are correct about that. Mar 20 at 15:05

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