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The Science and Art of Open Source Software License Management
Protect your organization from risk while ensuring continuous innovation
By: Kamyar Emami
Jan. 14, 2013 07:00 AM
The industrial revolution continues - starting with the steam engines of the 18th century, continuing with large-scale steel production, oil exploitation, electrical and photographic innovations of the 19th century, and moving on to the transportation, communications, computation and electronics of the 20th century. It is still early in the 21st century, but we can safely say software has become the engine that feeds the industrial, economic, medical, and gradually the political issues of our existence. The only way to satisfy the demand for the volume and complexity of the software that is needed to keep our world moving is to maximally share and reuse code within and across application domains.
Open Source Software (OSS) is the epitome of code reuse, enabling complex applications to be realized rapidly, economically and safely. Probably the largest collaborative endeavor in human kind to date, open source feeds on itself. Independent studies have converged on the fact that open source is everywhere, and depending on the source of the study, 80-100% of all software organizations now use open source software in their products or operations.
There is an implicit understanding that good developers do not write code from scratch any more. Rather, they can adapt a piece of existing code to furnish a desired function. Use of off-the-shelf code such as OSS brings the usual due diligence and precautions associated with deployment of any third-party content within an organization. The pedigree of the code, its ownership attributes, and the rules around the use of open source code (typically captured in a license document) govern its introduction within an organization and its suitability for an end-target use.
Open source software brings with it an unusual set of ownership issues. Unlike other commodities, open source code can be brought into an organization freely. While anything that is purchased in a transaction has implied ownership, ownership and usage of OSS can be confusing to many developers or organizations. Generally, the copyright ownership of OSS always stays with the creator of the open source code. The OSS copyright owner creates and communicates a license that explicitly sets out the rules governing the use of that open source software.
Continuous Versus One-Time OSS Assessment
Product quality considerations and standards require that a recorded knowledge of all the third-party components within a product be maintained at all times. These records should also include attributes such as pedigree, defect history and improvements over time, potential vulnerabilities, and code propagation within the organization. These records can be best maintained, not by a one-time examination of the organization's code portfolio, but through an ongoing and structured third-party and open source software adoption process. The practice of creating and updating the records automatically as development proceeds ensures ongoing compliance with the requirements of a quality organization.
As opposed to the continuous recordkeeping requirements of a quality process, a software audit is a one-time activity targeted at providing insight into the intellectual property (IP) ownership or IP rights, in anticipation of a transaction such as an M&A or a product shipment to market.
Open source software audits, generally carried out by an external body, involves an examination of a software portfolio in order to detect OSS and third-party code within that portfolio. The result of the audit is a report which highlights open source and third party components and their attributes. At a high level, statistics such as the names of any public-domain software packages and whether they are used in a modified or unmodified format, composition of the license mix, copyrights, vulnerabilities, languages, and open source lines of code are provided. At a more detailed level, specific open source or proprietary packages that were discovered, their license attributes, links to resources that contain additional information, text of the licenses, copyrights, and know security vulnerabilities associated with the components of the software are provided.
An audit process would highlight code that is specifically copyrighted, but for which no license is offered or mentioned. These cases are one of the challenging aspects in establishing IP ownership, as the copyright owner must be contacted for explicit permission to use their code. Also, any code that is not in the public domain and has no identifying information, such as headers, must be highlighted as requiring further investigation.
The Science: Detecting Third-Party Packages in a Portfolio
A number of methods can be used to identify open source and commercial software within a software portfolio. A short list of these methods will include the following.
There are hundreds of thousands of public-domain projects accessible to developers. When you consider that an OSS project can have multiple versions in the public domain and each package can consist of anything between two and 200,000 files, we gain an appreciation for the task involved in this method. Manual identification of code similarity to millions of files is obviously impractical. Only intelligent automated solutions can go through a software portfolio and examine similarity between each and every file in that portfolio and software files in public domain.
The Art: Reading Between the Lines
The art of OSS audit activity and license management relies on a clear understanding of the open source software community, open source packages, open source licenses, and development practices. This understanding comes with both academic knowledge as well as experience in scanning, reviewing, and auditing hundreds of software portfolios. Automated solutions that combine the science of scanning and license management with empirical methods that embody the art of open source package detection and license discovery can significantly speed up the discovery and management process and minimize, although not eliminate, the human involvement factor.
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