Many companies (and their programmers) use open source code in their products without thinking too much about it. Open source code is often seen as a free public benefit – like water from a public fountain. Drink all you want – no charge, and no strings attached.
Some companies may not even know which open source software is incorporated into their products. (They can find out by using products such as BlackDuck.)
Actually, most open source software is not “given away” and it is not free – it is licensed and, in fact, comes with strings attached.
The licensing terms of open source code vary. The GNU General Public License Version 2 (GPLv2) is the most predominant open source license. An estimated 16 billion lines of code are licensed using GPLv2.
Freedom or Restrictions?
According to the GNU General Public License:
The licenses for most software are designed to take away your freedom to share and change it. By contrast, the GNU General Public License is intended to guarantee your freedom to share and change free software–to make sure the software is free for all its users. …
When we speak of free software, we are referring to freedom, not price. Our General Public Licenses are designed to make sure that you have the freedom to distribute copies of free software (and charge for this service if you wish)…
The GPL is called a “copyleft” license (as distinguished from copyright), because it provides that products derived from code licensed under the GPL must be distributed under the same license terms as the licensed code.
The use of “free” open source code can in fact “restrict” the commercialization of a company’s products. The use of open source code together with a company’s proprietary code can in fact “contaminate” the company’s product resulting in the company’s having to distribute its proprietary code under the terms of the open source license. A company can in fact be sued for failing to comply with the terms of open source licenses if it does not act with respect to its proprietary code as it is required with respect to the open source code.
Open Source How-To
Two recent publications provide guidance on certain legal issues surrounding the GPL:
- The Software Freedom Law Center’s Guide to GPL Compliance (2ndEdition)
- The Free Software Foundation’s Copyleft and the GNU Public License: A Comprehensive Tutorial and Guide.
While open source software has many advantages and can be helpful for developing software, those who use it cannot afford to hide their heads in the sand when it comes to the licensing terms and the restrictions its use may have. From the risks involved to insurance available to mitigate the risks, software developers need to educate themselves and assure that they’re in compliance with the open source license requirements both for the use thereof and for further distribution as integrated into a product.