Open Source vs Commercial RISC-V Licensing Models

Everybody is familiar with commercial licensing from traditional processor IP vendors such as Arm, Cadence, and Synopsys. But in discussing the RISC-V Open Instruction Set Architecture (ISA), there is widespread confusion of terminology with RISC-V often being described as “open source”. Some have even accused vendors of commercial RISC-V IP such as Codasip or Andes as not being in the spirit of RISC-V. But what is reality?

Let’s look at definitions briefly. An open standard like C, Verilog or HTTP is defined by a document that is maintained by an independent organisation. Thus, C is maintained by ISO, Verilog by IEEE, and HTTP by IETF. These organisations maintain the technical standards using a set of impartial rules. Such open standards are generally freely accessible.

With open source, the source code for a software package or the hardware description language source for a hardware block are made available using a license. Open-source licenses vary from restrictive ones, such as copyleft license, to permissive ones, such as Apache. An open-source license defines rights for using, studying, modifying, and distributing the code. A copyleft license will require that any modifications be open-sourced, while a permissive license will not.

The RISC-V is an open standard, and the ISA does not define any microarchitecture or business model. Therefore, a RISC-V microarchitecture can be licensed either as a commercial IP license or as an open source one. Nothing is prescribed.

If we think of a classic commercial processor IP license, you are generally paying for:

  • The right to use the vendor’s ISA,
  • The right to use the vendor’s microarchitecture,
  • A warranty,
  • Vendor commitment to fix errors,
  • Indemnification.

In practice, the warranty is usually time-bound, and the indemnification is limited. However, for the licensee, the vendor has some commitments to fix a design if bugs are found, which is valuable particularly on a tight schedule. If a licensee is accused of patent infringement, intellectual property indemnification mean that the vendor will either defend the accusation or settle it on behalf of the licensee.

Classic IP vendors have jealously guarded their own ISAs as well as their microarchitectures. A normal license bundles the use of the ISA with the microarchitecture and there are no rights to modify the deliverables. Very rarely such vendors have offered an architectural license which has enabled the licensee to use the ISA with their own microarchitecture, but such licenses have commanded substantial fees. One reason why RISC-V is very disruptive is that with a free and open ISA, one of the most valuable possible deliverables has no license fee.

Given that RISC-V does not prescribe microarchitecture or how it is licensed, there are both commercially licensed and open-source RISC-V IP cores. With an open-source license, you pay no license fee for the microarchitecture, but you also do not get all the benefits of a commercial license. Generally, deliverables have no warranty and are accepted “as is”. Similarly, there is not the indemnification that exists with a commercial license. If bugs are found, then either the licensee or the open source community needs to fix them.

With a commercially licensed RISC-V cores, the only fees are associated with the microarchitecture as the RISC-V ISA is licensed free of charge. With this license, you get the warranty, indemnification and bug fixing commitments normally associated with a commercial license.

Licensing models

So, which is the right choice for RISC-V? Both commercial licenses and open source licenses have advantages and disadvantages. You need to weigh up what is best for your design project.

At Codasip, we offer both commercial RISC-V IP licenses and enable the adoption of open-source SweRV Cores. In the past, commercial and open source licenses were seen as bitter competitors. However, in the software world, companies such as Microsoft have embraced both models. Microsoft offers commercial licenses, supports open source projects, and has cloud-based business models. Codasip is convinced that commercial and open-source RISC-V licenses can co-exist and complement each other.

Roddy Urquhart