Open Source: licensing pitfalls may outweigh benefits

April 18, 2016 // By Rich Quinnell

The use of open-source software in product development can produce substantial savings, an intellectual property attorney told attendees at the Embedded Systems Conference in Boston last week, but beware of pitfalls. Using such software typically involves agreeing to a pre-defined license that not be ignored. Without careful consideration of the licenses involved, using OSS (open-source software) can yield legal conflict and cost developers their project's intellectual property.

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 $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 7500 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 license to the world at large and users simply agree to comply with that license in order to use the software. Leach added that some 2,000 different open-source licenses are in use, although 75% of the software uses one of five main licenses: MIT License, GNU General Public License (GPL) 2.0, Apache License 2.0, GNU GPL 3.0, and BSD License.

A common provision of such licenses, however, is that any software that derives from the open-source software must also be made publically available under the same copyleft provisions. Some of these licenses can be incompatible with one another, so that by combining code blocks with different licenses a developer would create a situation where conforming to one license violates the terms of the other license.