FOSS Audit- A Necessary Compliance Tool

Sejong University,Seoul
Sejong University,Seoul

Free and open source software (FOSS) issues have increasingly become a major problem for software, telecommunication, and other high-tech companies using FOSS-related software. FOSS-related issues include copyrights and licensing, trademarks, and patents issues that, if not addressed properly, can lead to legal exposure. More and more companies are finding that FOSS is very important. In most situations a FOSS audit is needed to determine what FOSS-related processes are needed.

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When software source code is written, the owner or creator of the source code must decide whether to license it and under what terms. Free open source software implies the source code may be copied and/or modified or distributed free of charge under certain conditions. The problems arise when those using, modifying, and/or distributing FOSS-related software do so without following or applying the terms and conditions of the owner’s license. If the copyright owner of particular FOSS software imposes certain conditions on the use and distribution of free and open source code, the conditions must be followed.

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The copyright owner can use numerous FOSS licenses. Among them, the most popular is the general public license (GNU), as well as the lesser used lesser general public license (LGPL), which is a variant of the GPL. Prior to using a GPL or GNU, a company needs to determine what goals it has in using the free open source software, or, if it is writing code, what project specifications are driving the project.

Some owners of FOSS-related software place very few restrictions, if any, on the use of software. Often, the licenses associated with this software are commonly referred to as “BSD” or “BSD-style” licenses. These licenses are known for the bare minimum restrictions that are placed on development and distribution.

Companies or users of FOSS or related software many times face legal liability for violation of FOSS licenses. This problem happens when companies seek to distribute copyleft FOSS code in their own proprietary software, which is closed, nonfree software. The problem gets worse when companies use FOSS code from subcontractors or vendors that have also failed to properly use FOSS code.

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As violation of open source licenses puts companies in jeopardy of being sued for copyright infringement, serious financial, reputational, and legal damages potentially threaten a company. Companies, therefore, have to consider implementation of a FOSS compliance program as part of the overall LRM process to minimize risk of exposure to such violations.  The first step in the FOSS compliance process is the FOSS Audit.  We will discuss the steps of a FOSS Audit in the next post.

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