Mar 2

When most people think about the LGPL 2.1 license, they focus on the requirement to redistribute any changes they make to the library and the ability to safely use the LGPL 2.1 licensed library within commercial products as long as the library is clearly separated from the proprietary code.

What is sometimes overlooked is the obligation to allow the replacement of the LGPL 2.1 library. Section 6 of the LGPL 2.1 license describes the obligations if you distribute a commercial product containing an LGPL 2.1 library. This has several implications on the commercial license and the packaging of the product. Depending on your software and hardware architecture this may be an easy obligation to meet or a difficult one.

In the case of Java, the class files of an LGPL 2.1 library can be dynamically linked when the application starts, making it easy to replace the LGPL 2.1 library. As long as the user knows where the library is located and the Java code is not packaged in an “obfuscated” manner, the library can be easily replaced. The user must be allowed to debug and make work any such changes and this may require changes to your commercial license if it has a “no reverse engineering clause”.

Things get a bit trickier if you’re using an LGPL 2.1 package in software embedded in a device. Since the license requires that a mechanism must be provided to allow the library to be replaced, you will likely need to provide some mechanism for replacing the firmware on the device with a version of the firmware containing a replaced LGPL 2.1 library.

Perhaps the most challenging situation is when the LGPL 2.1 libraries are used in security sensitive code. There are over 100 encryption software packages on Source Forge offered under LGPL 2.1 or LGPL 3.0. If such software can be replaced, how do you ensure security of the software? Complying with this license obligation will now require the user to be rather careful and sophisticated to not accidently open up a security hole when replacing such sensitive libraries. While many users may be able to maintain or even enhance the security of the product with this capability, opening it up to all users could create a security problem. If your software is used to protect other software or media you may have obligations to maintain a level of security not practical with the requirements of this obligation.

In all cases, the supportability of the software must be considered. If the user replaces a library, what does that mean to the support you provide to your customers? This will likely have impact on your support terms and support processes.

Net, the LGPL 2.1 obligation to allow the user to replace the library is sometimes a challenging obligation to meet. This is another item to consider in setting the policy for the open source licenses that your organization will allow inside your commercially licensed software.


Dec 10

Gartner released an interesting survey last month.  Surveying 300 enterprises, they found that 85% use open source within their organization today and the remaining 15% expect to use open source within the next 12 months.  That’s the good news.

The bad news?  69% of those same enterprises had no formal open source policy. This opens up huge liabilities.

As the author, Laurie Wurster, say, “Just because something is free, doesn’t mean it has no cost.”  “Companies must have a policy for procuring OSS, deciding which applications will be supported by OSS, and identifying the intellectual property risk or supportability risk associated with using OSS. Once a policy is in place, then there must be a governance process to enforce it.”

So there it is.  Actually, here it is, a link to the press release about the study from Gartner.

Open source is undeniably here to stay, within the most conservative enterprises.  But, all enterprises should adopt policies, about what open source is acceptable and what open source is not.

From Source Auditor’s viewpoint, the policies should outline the following at a minimum:

  • The licenses which contain obligations which the enterprise finds acceptable to fulfill
  • The license which contain obligations the enterprise does not find acceptable
  • The process for reviewing new candidate open source packages the enterprise wishes to adopt, both directly, or embedded inside commercial products
  • The process to review existing software products already in use in the enterprise (to decide if that software contains open source and if that open source contains licenses which are acceptable or not)

This, of course implies, the enterprise not only adopts and enforces a policy, but the enterprise creates a review board that can review new and existing software.  All existing and new software should be audited, an an inventory created of all embedded open source.

If all of this seems like a lot of effort for something that is “free”, that’s where we refer back to Gartner’s comment.  Open Source may be royalty free, but it certainly has costs.  The costs are no different, then the costs of insuring that any commercial royalty bearing software that you use, is in compliance with the license that came with it.  As recent court cases have shown, the license obligations in open source are legally enforceable, and violating them is the same as copyright infringement.


Nov 9

In a commercial software company, it is common practice for software developers to download free open source and incorporate that source within their own software. Most developers ignore the license obligations that come with the software. They usually think that because the software is royalty free, the license obligations probably don’t matter.

In many cases, though it does matter, at least if the software developer is using the open source software inside the commercial product, and distributing the open source to external customers.

Open Source comes with a variety of licenses. Some like public domain have no restrictions or obligations for the software developer using, distributing, or modifying either the source code or the object code.

Other licenses, though, can have restrictions on distribution or modification of the software, and can impose obligations on attribution and re-distribution of the software.

For approximately 60% of the open source packages, there is also a provision called “copy-left” which can go viral, and contaminate the proprietary commercial software which is not open source. For many commercial software developers, this is considered unacceptable.

Of course, many organizations have negelected these open source obligations, which has recently led to a series of lawsuits. In most of the lawsuits, the courts have ruled that open source license obligations are enforceable, even if no money changed hands. Thus, it is no longer a prudent option for commercial organizations to download and incorporate open source inside their commercial products without attending to the license obligations that come with that open source.

All of this leads to the need for the commercial software developer to create polices about incorporating open source inside the commercial software and to scan for open source using either manual methods or a professional open source audit firm such as Source Auditor.

Essentially, the commercial software organization needs to decide which open source licenses contain obligations and restrictions which are acceptable to that organization, and which licenses are not acceptable. For example, the organization could create an approved license list, for example (Public Domain, BSD, MIT, Apache, SUN Binary License, Common Public License and its derivatives), while considering other license such as GPL or LGPL not approved.

The organization should also audit its current commercial software to understand a census of open source inside. Any open source inside which does not meet the organization’s policy as posing acceptable obligations and restrictions, should be replaced.

This policy should then be enforced going forward, ie, when a software developer downloads open source and considers incorporating it into the commercial software, the policy should specify whether the license that comes with that open source is an approved license for that organization or not. There should be a review board that would review new submissions to decide if new licenses should be added to the approved list.

For more information about Open Source License Obligations and about tools to audit and track open source

Firms Struggle With Open Source


Nov 7

Since there are several hundred thousand free, widely used, and well maintained open source packages on the internet, it makes perfect sense to leverage open source whenever possible.  If you are a commercial software developer that depends on selling your own software in the marketplace, however, it is important to understand the legal obligations and the legal restrictions that come with your open source license.

With most Open Source licenses, obligations and restrictions in the license only apply if you distribute the open source, i.e., you incorporate the open source inside the source or binaries that you ship to your customers.  If you use the open source software only as a tool during the development process, the obligations posed by the open source typically do not apply.

With most Open Source licenses, the typical obligations center on attribution and re-distribution.

Attribution refers to giving credit to the authors and contributors of the open source software, i.e., the commercial software provider that incorporates open source inside, might need to properly give credit to the creators of the open source.   The requirements can include none or some of the following:  do not remove copyrights in the source code; provide credit in the end user documentation; do not use the open source authors names to endorse the commercial product without permission; clearly mark if you make any modifications to the open source; if there is a redistribution requirement, clearly show in the documentation how to get the redistribution; in any advertising you do for the commercial product, make sure you acknowledge the open source component provider.

Re-distribution refers to making the open source and related components freely available, i.e., free of charge and available to the public.  This is typically under the same license as the original open source.  This can include the original open source, any modifications you make, and most importantly, any software “based on” the open source code.  “Based on” is interpreted differently depending on the license.  Some licenses are viral in nature, and by some interpretations essentially force you to make all of your own commercial software that is linked to the open source software to also be given away free.  These licenses are also called “copy-left” licenses, and pose the greatest threat to a commercial software company’s business model.

Restrictions depend on the license, but common restrictions include: do not make any modifications to the open source; do not distribute this open source software without adding value of your own with additional software; do not remove copyrights in the open source; do not initiate patent litigation against any of the contributors to the open source on the grounds that something in the open source violates one of your patent claims.  Violating these restrictions can cause the license to be terminated.

While there are several hundred unique licenses, the following discusses some of the common types:

The least restrictive licenses are public domain licenses, which are essentially no licenses at all.  Source code provide in the Public Domain are free to use without restriction i.e., you can use the source code without any attribution or re-distribution and you can make modifications and derivative works; and you can distribute any or all of the open source software as you see fit.

These are followed by MIT style licenses, so named, because these licenses follow a template created by MIT.  In these licenses, the rights are similar to public domain and the only obligation is attribution.  For MIT style licenses, this requirement is often satisfied by leaving the original copyrights that came with the open source software in place and also providing credit to the open source authors in the end user documentation.

The next common style is BSD style licenses, originally created by the University of Berkeley, with both an original and a “modified” version of the license available.  These licenses are similar to MIT style, with the additional attribution requirement that the commercial software provider cannot use the names of the open source provider as a product endorsement without explicit permission.  The original BSD license also required that in any advertising done for the commercial product, there was an acknowledgement of the open source provider; however, the modified BSD license is far more common.

The next common license style is from Apache, which is a large well organized cooperative of open source contributors, with an extensive library of open source software.  The Apache 1.1 licenses requirements are very similar to the BSD modified license requirements.  The Apache 2.0 license adds that any modifications to the open source code must be clearly marked with a change log.  The Apache 2.0 license adds an important restriction, the patent non-assert clause, which essentially states that if you initiate patent litigation against any of the authors or contributors who helped create this open source, you can no longer use the open source.

The next common set of licenses is the Common Public License and its derivatives such as Eclipse Public License, IBM Public License, Mozilla Public License, etc.  These licenses all have similar obligations to the MIT license, but they also have additional obligations in attribution and re-distribution.  The CPL license requires that the commercial software developer has to make the original CPL licensed open source code as well as any changes to that source code made by the commercial developer, available for free.  In addition, the commercial software developer has to state in the end user documentation how the user can obtain this open source code along with the changes.  Finally, the source code changes made by the commercial developer should be clearly marked.   It is important to understand, that nothing in the CPL or its derivatives compels the commercial software developer to give away for free its own code that is packaged in separate modules from the open source software.

The final common set of licenses are the LGPL v2.1 and the GPL 2.0 licenses, which together make up about 70% of all of the open source code inside sourceforge.net, a well known open source repository.

The GPL 2.0 license has all the same attribution and re-distribution requirements as the CPL license above.  However, the GPL also require any works based on those packages to be offered (re-distributed) under the same “free to the public” terms.  Most commercial software companies consider this an unacceptable license for commercial software, because it does drive a change to their basic business model.

The LGPL v2.1 license carries a similar obligation to the GPL 2.0license but has a more restrictive definition of where the re-distribution obligation applies, which makes it friendlier to commercial companies then the GPL license.  For example, any commercial software which is dynamically linked to the LGPL licensed package does not require re-distribution.  However, the LGPL license also carries other obligations such as requiring the distributor of any package which includes the LGPL libraries to allow the end user to replace those libraries.  This may conflict with some of the terms of the commercial software package.

There are also several dozen unique licenses for individual open source packages.  While they can generally be classified as similar to one of the common licenses described above, they often have some unique requirement or feature that needs to be taken into account.

To summarize, open source licenses center on attribution and re-distribution, although they can have other requirements as well.   Understanding these license obligations, and abiding by them, is the true cost of free open source, and it is important to understand and manage these license obligations to avoid legal issues and to safely leverage open source.

When Source Auditor conducts an open source audit, we help our customers identify and understand the technical aspects of their license obligations arising from downloaded open source.  When open source packages are identified with terms unacceptable to you, we also suggest alternative implementations to replace those packages.


Oct 28

There are four recommended strategies for managing open source within the engineering environment:

  • Establish an open source policy.  The policy should identify the license types that are acceptable to the organization (perhaps such as Public Domain, MIT, BSD, and Apache), any considerations for particular modules or source directories that are already approved or disapproved, approval process for including open source and consequences for not following the policy?
  • Isolate 3rd party and open source code in the source repository.  Establish separate directories, or even separate repositories to hold the 3rd party code.  Establish a naming convention that helps identify the package and version.
  • Track the open source used.  Track the URL downloaded from, the original package, the licenses, and any modifications to the original package.
  • Review the check-ins and enforce the policy.  For small companies, this can be done manually.  For larger operations, commercial tools such as Source Auditor may greatly aid in the review of open source check-ins.