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Home // Open Source Software Licenses: Balancing Risks and Benefit

Technology publication Information Age suggests open source software (OSS) will be under the microscope in 2019. And as the debate over how it is used and licenced intensifies, we think Information Age’s prediction on OSS is spot on. As the magazine argues, people are only starting to get to grips with the fact that most software and software applications are now derived from OSS.

At Nath Solicitors in London we offer specialist advice on a wide range of IT and software agreements. This includes guidance on OSS licencing issues for both:

  1. Software companies and developers; and
  2. Businesses that use OSS in the course of their operations

What is Open Source Software?

Traditionally, software developers created the ‘source code’ (the components) for a particular program. They then sold a licence to enable users to operate that program. While purchasers of a licence could use the software, they had no access to the source code. Legally that element of the software remained the property of the developers.

In many respects the traditional or ‘proprietary’ form of software was a static product. If a business developed and wanted to modify the software to meet new demands, it could only do so by incurring substantial expense and dedicating significant resources to the task.

With OSS, the source code is shared so that programmers can modify it freely. For many businesses this represents a cost-effective way to customise software for a specific business.

Is Open Source Software Free?

There may not be licence fees or restrictions on the number of people who can use it – but OSS is not free. Often a company will pay expert developers to modify the software and create a bespoke package. There are also significant legal issues attached to the use of OSS. For example, while a user can distribute the OSS to others he or she must fulfill any conditions in the licence agreement. We discuss these legal issues below.

What are the Legal Issues Around Open Source Software?

Nath Solicitors works with clients to minimise the risk involved in the use of OSS and other software agreements. Our advice covers:

  • Licence terms: Any organisation using OSS should always have the licence terms reviewed by a legal expert. There should be internal processes in place governing the use and adoption of OSS. For example to ensure that management are made aware of the terms of each piece of OSS being used. The scope and operation of all OSS should be reviewed regularly to ensure ongoing compliance with licence terms.
  • Redistribution of OSS – If you are redistributing any OSS you must do so in accordance with the licence. How was the OSS distributed to your organisation? If the code was given freely then any distribution must normally be exercised freely too. Importantly, this will usually mean you must also distribute freely any modifications you have made to the software.
  • Mixing traditional software with OSS – Sometimes you may wish to incorporate elements of OSS into a more traditional, proprietary software package. We can ensure you are able to do so while protecting the source code of the proprietary software upon distribution.

Contact our IT & Software Agreement Solicitors in London

OSS offers the huge commercial benefit of cost effective and stable software. And it is set to proliferate in the coming years. For many businesses OSS will probably become unavoidable. But remember, it is not without risk. You should always consider have existing and new licence agreements scrutinised by a specialist IT lawyer.

To discuss OSS or IT contracts generally please contact Shubha Nath on 0203 983 8278 or contact us online.


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