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I would like to create a functional peice of mechanical hardware. To my knowledge, GPL-3.0 is compatible with non-software works. I would like to license the design of my under GPL-3.0.

However, I would like also to use commercially available items in my product, some of which may be protected under patent. Is this licensable under GPL-3.0?

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The GPL can technically be applied to non-software works, but its interpretation becomes difficult because the GPL explicitly references concepts such as programs and source code. Furthermore, the copyrightability of hardware and hardware designs is not clear. All of this indicates against using the GPL in your case.

Whatever license you do choose, you cannot license rights that you do not have.

  • The GPL does not affect the rights of third parties. If those third parties hold patents that would be infringed by your design, the GPL cannot shield you from that infringement. There is a GPL clause that discourages users from suing you, but third parties are not affected.

    • However, using some patented component would generally be unproblematic if you acquired that component properly (e.g. exhaustion doctrine in the US).
  • If you hold patents in the design (or have licensed the relevant patents), then the GPLv3 and Apache 2.0 licenses include a patent license for all those patents that would be infringed by your design. This protects users from you.

    • If you hold no patent rights, this is irrelevant.

    • If you issue a patent license through the GPLv3, that is a non-exclusive license. This does not prevent you from also using the patents commercially.

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