Open Source Software

The Devil is in The Detail

Open Source Software: Dos and Don’ts

  • 27 december 2019

Are you allowed to do whatever you like with open source software? Regrettably no, as the vendor’s terms of use apply here as well. Our SAM specialist Maximilian Hoppe knows what happens if you fail to stick to the small print. In this article, he sheds some light on the dos and don’ts of open source software.

Open source is a term used to describe software that is available for use free of charge. But that’s only half the story. The most significant aspect of this complementary software is that its source code is freely available. So anyone can set about changing, editing and developing the program’s building blocks. It’s actually encouraged – but only within a clearly defined framework, which is found in the small print of the license terms. And as we know, the devil’s always in the details.

Typical mistakes when using open source software

The Business Software Alliance (BSA) is a perfect example of how even the parties who should actually know best can make mistakes when they continue using open source software. An organization that represents the interests of prestigious software vendors like Microsoft, Adobe or VMware, BSA is committed to fighting the use of unlicensed software. For example at Halloween 2016: BSA released the advertising campaign "No Piracy" on its website, calling for whistleblowers to report the use of incorrectly licensed software by companies.

In actual fact, BSA itself failed to take a sufficiently close look at the licensing terms. An external observer from the website Torrentfreak revealed the faux pas, namely that BSA had included a modified version of jQuery Code on its website, but had forgotten to include the copyright information required in the terms of use.

Open Source Software: Dos and Don’ts
License terms also apply to open source programs – here an example from jQuery

Admittedly, it was a minor mistake, so the developers behind jQuery did not immediately slap BSA with a civil suit. But the software interest group was unable to avert sensitive damage to its image, as its failure to observe licensing terms was greeted with significant interest and even greater amusement in the wider Internet community. BSA even responded by temporarily shutting down its website in order to fix the problem.

How to Avoid Making Mistakes in the Use of Open Source Software

Such a radical step would not be conceivable for in-house proprietary solutions that are critical to your business and in which you have invested months of work. This is why it is imperative to be cautious when using open source software. So take your time to thoroughly read the licensing terms and to assess their legal implications.

In our example of jQuery, the people involved should have at least investigated the following issues before using open source software:

  1. Can the open source software be used in a commercial environment? Yes, the disclaimer includes every natural person or legal entity without any restrictions. So BSA as well.
  2. Which changes to the open source software are permitted? Solutions based on jQuery can be expanded or even sold in any way, provided the disclaimer is added.

But users need to invest a little time in assessing the complete terms of use if they want to locate this information. A certain affinity for legal analyses is probably helpful as well if one wishes to mitigate the risk of overlooking important content.

Open Source Software: Dos and Don’ts
Software development project progress review, source: SoftwareONE

It is a good idea to take a thorough look at issues surrounding the terms of use for open source software, depending on how far your project has progressed.

Anyone lacking suitable know-how is well advised to consult an expert who is familiar with the licensing terms and can help you to assess the situation correctly.

  • IT Market
  • Open Source

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