If systems-on-chip are to realize their full economic potential in the hardware world, the proprietary licensing structure of silicon intellectual property (IP) has to change. Community source licensing (CSL) is an emerging approach that promises to free SoC design from the effects of costly and rigid proprietary licensing. CSL creates an open, yet structured, environment in which users can easily examine specific IP, share information, and begin development using the IP, without incurring enormous upfront licensing fees.
The proprietary licensing model that dominates hardware design forces engineers to choose IP almost sight unseen and then pay huge upfront licensing fees. The approach benefits the IP vendor, but offers no advantage for the user. Though open source licensing has proven successful in software, it is not practical for hardware design. Building sophisticated hardware devices, unlike creating complex software structures, requires that many implementation details be taken into account if the design is to succeed.
CSL delivers all the benefits of open source without sacrificing the strengths of a structured approach to IP development and distribution.
Community source licensing lets a developing organization make its base design or IP openly available to all participants without surrendering its ownership rights, and with no up-front barriers to entry except a short, simple, click-through R&D licensing pact.
CSL eliminates all upfront licensing fees. The licensee only has to pay a royalty to the developing organization when the base IP is actually deployed for commercial production. As a result, financial returns to the developing organization are proportional to the commercial success enjoyed by the licensees.
The developing organization promotes the good of the community by engaging in ongoing efforts to improve the base source product in a structured, evolutionary way. That includes setting priorities, promoting compliance with standards and ensuring the quality of the IP. The developing organization will fold in corrections turned back by licensees and improvements when deemed necessary.
To that end, the developing organization should ease standards creation, foster discussion when appropriate and help moderate disputes that may arise.
An expanding community of contributors should yield higher-quality hardware, along with an accelerated pace of innovation and a large and rapidly growing user base. Suppliers of IP will also stand to profit from having thousands of users examine and refine their IP. Moreover, the approach should help suppliers reach a broader audience than was possible under proprietary licensing. Just as important, product functionality, compatibility, and quality are guaranteed via the testing requirements associated with deployment of the base IP.
For more on community source licensing, see Sun Microsystems' Community Source licensing site at www.sun.com/microelectronics/communitysource.
Fadi Azhari is Group Marketing Manager for Sun Microsystems Microelectronics (San Jose, Calif.).