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As I have found out, there are "open-source hardware" licenses which are written in the spirit of "open-source software" licenses and require the user to publish a modified design if they distribute a physical product based on that design. Examples are TAPR and Arduino license.

However, unlike software which is subject to copyright in any form, circuit boards are not subject to copyright as they are not works of art. This makes me wonder whether open-source hardware licenses can actually provide the protection that they advertise.

Are such licenses deemed legally enforceable? Have they ever been enforced?

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  • There's already a question on Law SE whose answer says circuit board layouts are not copyrightable (although it's primarily about publishing photos). See also this on Electronics SE. HDL is more like code (but you seem less interested in that). Other non-functional features of a design might be copyrightable, although I'm not sure how much sense it would make to cover them by an OS licence.
    – Stuart F
    Jul 7, 2023 at 10:50
  • @StuartF Well, I was already under the impression that open-source hardware licenses are rather toothless, and the widespread presence of closed-design Arduino clones seems to confirm that as well. Jul 13, 2023 at 6:25
  • @StuartF HDL is indeed more like software, since the production consists in copying the compiled code into FPGA chips. In fact, HDL projects don't seem use open-source hardware licenses much, and instead rely on software license like (L)GPL and BSD. Jul 13, 2023 at 6:32

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Circuit boards are not subject to copyright but circuit board designs are

This case from Taiwan neatly explains the difference.

The licence presumably attaches to the design of the circuit board - the circuit diagram, circuit board layout, or integrated circuit layout. In order to use the design, one would almost surely need to make a copy of it or modify it. It is this step that requires adherence to the licence, not the actual manufacture of the circuit.

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  • If I understand the cited case correctly, it was enough for the defendant to change the physical location of components to successfully defend against allegations of copyright infringement. It did not matter that the two products shared exactly the same electrical circuit (i.e. the electrical connections between the components). Jul 13, 2023 at 6:27

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