Open Source Hardware “Better World” Charitable License for Science Education and Literacy

In preparation for releasing the prototype Open Source Science Tricorder Mark 5, as well as a spin-off project that works to build an inexpensive 3D-printable mini embedded spectrometer, I’ve been working on drafting something very important to me — an open source hardware license that helps benefit science education and literacy charities when open hardware is sold for a profit.

Having previously worked with literacy charities, I know how poorly funded they can be, and how substantial a benefit even modest amounts of donations can make. For example, while in grad school I volunteered to live in our university library for a week (in a tent) to help raise funds for Live in for Literacy, a charity that helps build libraries in third world countries. A few thousand dollars is a significant fraction of the cost of building a school library in poor countries like Nepal, which helps provide substantially positive social-economic-status outcomes for hundreds of students per library, per year. LIFL notes that raising $170,000 since 2006 has allowed them to build 15 libraries, greatly support education for girls and women (which is often severely impeded in countries where they are not recognized as equal), and support the preservation of local languages through literacy projects ( ). They estimate that they substantially benefit the education of over 5,000 children per year. This is only a single example of a very small charity.

The spirit of this license is the belief that a large portion of the social and economic issues that are present in portions of both the developed and undeveloped world are a direct response to poor literacy and poor education, and that helping to educate folks will enable them to make informed choices that effect positive social change.


Open hardware is still a new thing, and folks including the Open Source Hardware Association (OSHWA) have been working to establish a wishlist of best practices for sharing, and help figure out the licensing and other issues involved in mixing copyright, patent, and other intellectual property law in open licenses. Of the three main copyleft licenses used by the community, the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike makes use of copyright law to allow folks to share, remix, and make commercial use of a work, as long as they provide attribution and share any modifications they make with the community. Two other licenses, the CERN Open Hardware License and the TAPR Open Hardware License, are specifically designed for open hardware and work to add intellectual property and patent sharing provisions and language into the mix to ensure that a work can be shared, built, and effectively maintained by the community. While there’s a great selection of licenses to choose from, the general feeling in the community is that because open hardware is new most of these licenses haven’t yet had the opportunity to be tested in court on hardware specific cases. Add that to the recent push to overhaul of the patent system, and the international collaborations that are common with open projects, and the feeling is that we’ll have to wait for a few years to see how well the provisions work for each of the different licenses.

The Open Hardware Better World License

Technically, the charitable license I’d like to introduce is heavily derived from the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license, which is copyright based, and very common in the community. It’s central provisions are that you’re free to share and remix a work, under the conditions that you:

  • Provide Attribution to the original work
  • ShareAlike by releasing any modifications, additions, or improvements you make under the same license.

The draft of the Open Hardware Better World license adds upon this with hardware-specific provisions similar to the CERN and TAPR Open Hardware Licenses, including:

  • Patent sharing, and immunity from suit for patents that the authors may hold that pertain to a work
  • Language that specifically mentions works of science and engineering, such as schematics, circuit layouts, etc.
  • Language that specifically mentions manufacturing physical devices, in addition to the already present copyright language for sharing the source files

In addition, I have added the charitable requirement that when open hardware projects are used in a for-profit setting:

  • 10% of the profit must be donated to a science education or literacy charity of the manufacturer/seller’s choice.
  • The charity that you choose must have a charitable commitment (the percentage of donations it uses to further its charitable mission, and not operating costs) of at least 75%, and must not discriminate based on race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, faith, or religious affiliation (or lack thereof).
  • Donations may also be split between science education or literacy charities, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) / Open Source Hardware Association (OSHWA), with the majority of the donation going to science education or literacy charities.
  • Because I can imagine few things better than waking up one morning and learning that your project has helped people, but also pragmatically for verification purposes, folks who manufacture a project are required to let the author(s) of an open source hardware project know which charity/charities they’ve chosen and the respective donation amount(s) quarterly. This puts a minor burden on the manufacturer, but shouldn’t take more than 15 minutes of their time per quarter.

In terms of a concrete example, this means that if a device costs $20 to assemble and manufacture, that:

  • For-profit: If the device is sold for (say) $50, then the difference between the manufacturing and sale cost is $30. 10% of this, or $3 per device, must be charitably donated to a science education or literacy charity. The other 90%, or $27, goes to pay the help, run the business, and make a profit.
  • Non-profit/at cost: If the device is sold for $20, then no charitable contribution is required. Thank you for helping bring more open projects into the world!

License Draft and Comments
The draft of the license is available here (pdf). Additions to CC-BY-SA 3.0 have been highlighted in green, and some portions largely related to the performance arts provisions of CC-BY-SA have been omitted. Because I’m an academic and a content author, but not a lawyer or a business owner, I’d love to hear your comments — both general, and specific to:

  • Adoptability: It’s my hope that the license could serve as a drop-in replacement for open-hardware projects that aimed to use a CC-BY-SA 3.0 license, but that would like to include charitable donations for for-profit use — and it’s also the license I’d like to use for the next iteration of the Open Source Science Tricorder project, the open mini embedded spectrometer project, and other open hardware projects. As a content author, would you also be likely to use this license? Why, or why not?
  • Contribution Percentage: Ultimately, the license’s utility to science education and literacy is only as useful as its adoption rate. The donation proportion is set at 10% of the profit (defined as the difference between the manufacturing cost and the sale price). Intuitively this seems like a fair figure to me, but I’m not running a business and only have a very general idea of what margins are like. Do you think this is a good number? Would you go higher? Would donating 10% of the profit run you into the ground?

Please feel free to leave your comments below, or send them to peter at tricorderproject dot org.