On the Law and Your Open Source License

by Ostatic Staff - Jan. 18, 2017

"Looking back five or ten years, companies managing open source risk were squarely focused on license risk associated with complying with open source licenses," notes a report from Black Duck Software. Fast-forward to today, and the rules and processes surrounding open source licensing are more complex than ever.

It was only a few years ago when Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst made the prediction that open source software would soon become nearly pervasive in organizations of all sizes. That has essentially become true, and many businesses now use open source components without even knowing what they are using. For these reasons and other ones, it is more important than ever to know your way around the world of laws and licenses that pertain to open source software. In this post, you'll find key, free resources you can leverage to make good licensing decisions.

Did you know that there is an official, free journal dedicated to open source law? It's the International Free and Open Source Software Law Review, and it's worth looking into.

Among topics covered by this journal, you'll find content related to copyright, license implementation, license interpretation, software patents, open standards, case law and statutory changes. Here are just a few example articles, and you can get all articles from the site in either PDF or HTML format:

Open licensing and databases

The GPL “Liberty or Death!” Clause: An Israeli Case Study

The Gift that Keeps on Giving – Distribution and Copyleft in Open Source Software License

Towards a Functional Licence for Open Hardware

You can also find book reviews and much more on the site. Archives are available here.

If you're in search of the perfect license for your open source project, start at GitHub's Choosealicense.com site. It covers nearly every type of license and can even help if you're open source project isn't software.

As we noted in this post, the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC) also has a set of very good resources on open source licensing and legal topics, as well as advice on copyrights. Legal issues are smart to anticipate up front. The SFLC authors are attorneys who were part of creating popular open source licenses.

The Open Source Definition is where every project leader should start when it comes to how open source projects should be distributed, and what actually qualifies as open source. It's also good to review Open Standards requirements.

For an easy to digest, plain language discussion of license types for open source projects, and which license will work best for your project, try FOSS License Wars. The discussion is broken up into chapters that you can skim as you see fit, and the information is solid. We have much more information on licenses available here, and the Free Software Foundation has a good primer. It's also an excellent idea to visit SourceForge, and review the many projects housed there, which types of licenses they have, how their communities work, and more. Should your project be housed there?

If you're stitching together open source code or deploying applications, Hewlett-Packard's free application Fossology is designed to analyze the source code for any project and report accurately on which licenses are being used. Meanwhile, opensource.com has a good reminder post on how open source licenses are shared resources, found here.

Finally, don't forget that OStatic itself is an excellent forum for getting questions answered. Type a question in at any time in our Member Questions area (see the Questions button on the home page) and you'll get answers from experts. You can also read some of OStatic's many interviews with open source project leaders, with a number of good examples found here.