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Open Source Software Legal Issues

December 11, 2012

According to, the adoption of Open Source Software (OSS) results in savings of over $60 billion per year. But wait a minute, what is OSS? 

Open Source Software refers to any software subjected to a license that makes the source code available to everyone. A good example of OSS is Drupal in all its forms, including Drupal Mobile. You can change the source code or even change its mode of operation. However, this does not mean that it does not have any legal issues. Common open source software legal issues are explained below.


Licenses for OSS come in different forms, and they all offer different terms of usage. One of the latest versions of these licenses, the GNU General Public License (GPL version 3), has a clause forbidding the payments of royalties on copies of the OSS. The Berkley Software Distribution (BSD), which is an important source of Unix development, has a copyright notice and disclaimer that you must display at all times while using the OSS. For most licenses, you are required to disclose your source code while using it, even if you are developing proprietary software. 

Usage restriction

Reading the term ‘restriction’ above, you might be forgiven for jumping to the conclusion that the usage of OSS is severely curtailed by their developers. If you have used OSS before, say you have used Drupal modules, then you understand why this is not true. The licensing terms for OSS allows you to modify, copy, or even distribute OSS source code. The only restriction is that you should not put any restrictions to those who use your modifications or copies. Unfortunately, it might create a problem for you if you have your own terms and conditions for your software. 

Risk minimization 

If you are not into software development and vending as your main business, you face minimal risks when using OSS. In case you vend software, then you should be careful on how you use OSS. You can start by carrying out legal due diligence to understand how the licensing terms will affect your business. A statement to the effect that "the OSS used and its components are subject to the licensing terms of the applicable OSS" will be sufficient. In case you outsource your operations, don’t allow your suppliers to use OSS without your express approval. This will greatly minimize potential legal ramifications. 


Finally, you should know that warranties for the functionality and quality of OSS are generally limited. When using an OSS, you receive it in an “as is” basis. Even if some third parties make claims that your development (that uses OSS source code) infringes on their property rights, you have no indemnities to protect you.

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