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Drawbacks in open source licensing offset advantages

Posted: 20 Apr 2016     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Antelink  open source  licensing  copyleft  IP 

During the recent Embedded Systems Conference in Boston, an intellectual property (IP) attorney said the use of open-source software in product development can produce substantial savings, but pitfalls remain. Using such software normally includes agreeing to a pre-defined licence that not be ignored.

Without careful consideration of the licences involved, using open-source software (OSS) can yield legal conflict and cost developers their project's intellectual property (IP).

In his presentation Legal and Practical Concerns with Software Development, attorney Richard A. Leach of Brooks Kushman P.C., told attendees that use of open-source software saves up to ₹4.05 lakh crore ($60 billion) a year in development costs. Further, he noted, there is a massive amount of such software available. Leach indicated that billions of open-source software files are located in more than 7,500 repositories worldwide.

Software is automatically protected under copyright law, Leach noted, and as such it must be purchased or licensed from its creator individually by anyone seeking to use it or develop derivative works based on it. Open-source software, however, has been made available for users and developers under what is called the "copyleft" principle. In copyleft, Leach said, the owner grants a licence to the world at large and users simply agree to comply with that licence in order to use the software. Leach added that some 2,000 different open-source licences are in use, although 75 per cent of the software uses one of five main licences: MIT Licence, GNU General Public Licence (GPL) 2.0, Apache Licence 2.0, GNU GPL 3.0 and BSD Licence.

Focus on copyleft

A common provision of such licences, however, is that any software that derives from the open-source software must also be made publicly available under the same copyleft provisions. Some of these licences can be incompatible with one another, so that by combining code blocks with different licences a developer would create a situation where conforming to one licence violates the terms of the other licence. Some licences may conflict with a businesses' objectives by forbidding commercialisation of derivative products. And some licences, Leach noted, are "viral" in nature in that not only is the specific software built on the open-source component to be made open source under the licence, so is all other integrated software that becomes part of the product. Further, such a viral licence not only "infects" the developing company's proprietary product software, forcing it to be open source, the licence can force application software created by the product's user to also become open source under the viral licence.

Leach recommended that companies seeking to obtain the benefits of open-source software take a three-step approach to protecting themselves and their development investment. 1) First, develop an open-source software strategy and put together a company policy specifying which open-source licences are acceptable for development projects; 2) Second, educate the developers on the licensing issues surrounding open-source software and on the company's policy; and 3) Third, ensure that product software complies with the relevant open-source licences, and in particular any requirements for notifications regarding the open-source licences involved.

Leach further recommends that companies identify a "point person" to serve as a central point of contact for all issues and questions regarding the open-source strategy, and that development teams make certain they know if any other third-party software they are using itself uses open-source software.

While the need for care in using open-source software may be discouraging to development teams, however, Leach pointed out that the potential benefits are considerable. He further noted that software and services from vendors like Rogue Wave Software, Black Duck and Antelink can help ease the developer's task of complying with their company's open-source strategy.

- Rich Quinnell
  EE Times

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