Don’t leave yourself Open to problems | 14 April 08

COMPANIES are being warned that they could leave themselves open to problems if they use Open Source Software in their business.

Open Source Software (OSS) is freely available software that is generally provided without cost and without having to pay anyone royalties or fees, in contrast to ‘closed source’ software such as Microsoft Office which is licensed to users in return for a fee.

The idea behind OSS is that developers across the world can share their expertise to create a variety of robust applications from which everyone benefits without traditional licence restrictions.

More than 50% of the internet runs on open source web server software and it is widely used in both the public and private sector since it is seen as robust and either free or very cheap.

However, experts at North law firm Ward Hadaway warn that companies or organisations which use OSS to develop their own programs, applications or software could land themselves in trouble.

In the worst case scenario, software which has cost a business thousands of pounds to develop may even have to be given away.

Judy Baker, IT partner at Newcastle-based Ward Hadaway, said: “Using open source software has huge benefits because it can bring significant savings in costs and development time.

“However, there are a number of risks associated with OSS which companies and organisations should bear in mind.

“First, OSS is usually made available without any form of warranty, so there’s no guarantee that the OSS works or doesn’t infringe others’ rights, and support is normally only available on a voluntary basis or by paying fees.

“Secondly, whilst OSS is issued under a licence, there are more than 40 different licences for different applications.

“The most common of these licences states that if you distribute software based on the OSS, or which modifies the OSS, you have to make the source code for that software available under the same OSS licence terms, so you make your own code open source.

“This means that in certain circumstances, if a closed source application is created which contains even a small amount of OSS, that closed source application has to be made available to the public as OSS so the company which has spent time and money developing the product will have to give it away for others to develop.

“It’s a bit like a record company having to give away their star group’s latest album for free having spent millions recording it.”

With this in mind, companies and organisations thinking of using open source software are being advised to review the licence agreements covering their use with a toothcomb – or leave themselves open to the consequences.