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Open Source Compliance: Getting Started Guide

What are the challenges faced when establishing a compliance program? What best practices exist?

This article discusses Open Source compliance and the challenges faced when establishing a compliance program, provides an overview of best practices, and offers recommendations on how to deal with compliance inquiries.

Introduction
Traditionally, platforms and software stacks were built using proprietary software and consisted of various software building blocks that came from different companies with negotiated licensing terms. The business environment was predictable and potential risks were mitigated through license and contract negotiations with the software vendors. In time, companies started to incorporate Open Source software in their platforms for the different advantages it offers (technical merit, time-to-market, access to source code, customization, etc).

With the introduction of Open Source software to what once were pure proprietary software stacks, the business environment diverged familiar territory and corporate comfort zones (Figure 1). The licenses of Open Source software licenses are not negotiated agreements. There are no contracts signed with the software providers (i.e., Open Source developers). Companies must now deal with dozens of different licenses, and hundreds or even thousands of licensors and contributors. As a result, the risks that used to be managed through license negotiations must now be managed now through compliance and engineering practices.

A new computing environment necessitating Open Source compliance due diligence

Enter Open Source Compliance
Open Source software initiatives provide companies with a vehicle to accelerate innovation through collaboration with a global community of Open Source developers. However, accompanying the benefits of teaming with the Open Source community are very important responsibilities. Companies must ensure compliance with applicable Open Source license obligations.

Open source compliance means that users of Open Source software must observe all the copyright notices and satisfy all the license obligations for the Open Source software they use. In addition, companies using Open Source software in commercial products, while complying to the terms of Open Source licenses, want to protect their intellectual property and that of third party suppliers from unintended disclosure.

Open Source compliance involves establishing a clean baseline for software stack or platform code and then maintaining that clean baseline as features and functionalities are added. Failure to comply with Open Source license obligations can result in:

  • Companies paying undisclosed amount of money for breach of Open Source licenses.
  • Companies being forced by third parties to block product shipment and do product recalls.
  • Companies being mandated by courts to establish a more rigorous Open Source compliance program  and appoint a “Open Source - Compliance Officer” to monitor and ensure compliance with Open Source licenses
  • Companies losing their product differentiation and intellectual property rights protection when required to release source code (and perceived trade secrets) to the Open Source community and license to competitors royalty-free.
  • Companies suffering negative press and unwanted public scrutiny as well as damaged relationships with customers, suppliers and the Open Source community.

Lessons Learned

There are three main lessons to learn from the Open Source compliance infringement cases that were made public to date.

  • Ensure that your company has an Open Source management infrastructure in place: Open Source compliance is not just a legal exercise or checking a box. All facets of the companies are typically involved in ensuring proper compliance and contributing to the end-to-end management of Open Source software.
  • Make Open Source compliance a priority before product ship: Companies must establish and maintain consistent Open Source compliance policies and procedures and ensure that Open Source license(s) and proprietary license(s) co-existence well before shipment.
  • Create and maintain a good relationship with the Open Source community: As a user of Open Source software, it is to your best advantage to create a good relationship with the Open Source community and demonstrate good will.  The Open Source community provides you with source code, technical support, testing, documentation, etc. Respecting the licenses of the Open Source components you are using is the minimum you can do in return.

Compliance Challenges

Companies face several challenges as they start creating the compliance infrastructure needed to manage their Open Source software consumption. The most common challenges include:

  1. Achieving the right balance between processes and meeting product shipment deadlines: Processes are important, however, they have to be light and efficient so that they're not regarded as an overhead to the development process and to avoid Engineering spending too much time than necessary on compliance activities.
  2. Thinking long-term, executing short-term: The priority of all companies is to ship the product(s) on time, at the same time as building and expanding their internal Open Source compliance infrastructure. Therefore, expect to build your compliance infrastructure as you go while doing it the right way and keeping in mind its scalability for future activities and products.
  3. Establishing a clean software baseline:  Establishing a clean software baseline is usually an intensive activity over a period of time. The results of the initial compliance activities include: A complete software inventory that identifies all Open Source software in the baseline,  a resolution of all issues related to mixing proprietary and Open Source code, and a plan on fulfilling the license obligations for all the Open Source software.

 

Building a Compliance Infrastructure

The following subsections examine the essential building blocks of an Open Source compliance infrastructure required to enable Open Source compliance efforts.

Open Source compliance building blocks

More Stories By Ibrahim Haddad

Ibrahim Haddad is a member of the management team at The Linux Foundation responsible for technical, legal and compliance projects and initiatives. Prior to that, he ran the Open Source Office at Palm, the Open Source Technology Group at Motorola, and Global Telecommunications Initiatives at The Open Source Development Labs. Ibrahim started his career as a member of the research team at Ericsson Research focusing on advanced research for system architecture of 3G wireless IP networks and on the adoption of open source software in telecom. Ibrahim graduated from Concordia University (Montréal, Canada) with a Ph.D. in Computer Science. He is a Contributing Editor to the Linux Journal. Ibrahim is fluent in Arabic, English and French. He can be reached via http://www.IbrahimHaddad.com.

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