Every software start-up company I’ve ever worked with uses (or did use) some form of open source software. And yet, high level executives and board members at many of these companies, when asked whether their company uses any open source software, would regularly answer, “No” without hesitation.
Where is this disconnect coming from? Open Source Software is often perceived as “risky” or “untested” or “a liability nightmare” or, in the worst case, “an infectious disease” by some business folks, while most technical software people believe the correct use of open source software to carry minimal risk.
There are risks associated with using any third party’s software. When that third party is unidentified, not bound by a support agreement, based out of a foreign country, and/or impossible to get a hold of, then yes, it is fair to say that using it would be “risky” when compared with an established company with a business reputation to protect and an SLA to cover errors.
In some case — it’s true. There are many untested open source projects out there. These tend to be associated with a handful of developers instead of an active community, and a little due diligence should be able to help a start-up understand whether this particular ill is a problem with the open source software they are considering using.
A Liability Nightmare?
This is, by far, the most complicated issue I face as an attorney who deals with open source issues. At its most basic, the liability equation associated with open source software is the same as that associated with any third party component. The third party would like to disclaim liability for your use of their product.
The benefit of many proprietary software licenses is that the licensor may provide limited coverage for Intellectual Property claims related to their software. But, most software publishers go to great lengths to limit the amount and type of liability they will cover relating to a third party’s use of their software.
The typical open source license expressly disclaims all liability associated with the use of the software — effectively, it comes “AS IS” on a pure “BUYER/USER BEWARE” basis. On the other hand, if you read the license agreements of proprietary software carefully, you will find that most software (unless you pay quite a bit for it), comes with an express limitation on liability that is on the order of magnitude of the purchase price. It is consistent with the approach taken by proprietary software publishers that open source authors are liable for damages related on the order of magnitude of the license fee they receive (e.g. $0).
An Infectious Disease?
One flavor of open source licenses places conditions of “freedom” upon the use of the licensed code. The most famous of these licenses are the GPL, LGPL, and the AGPL. Essentially, these licenses require, as a condition of some uses or distributions, that software code combined with code licensed under these licenses must also be made available under the same license.
These conditions make these types of licenses “viral” because they may extend the license terms to some of the additional code (e.g. the start-up’s code) that the licensed code touches.
The key word in the previous sentence is *MAY.*
The thoughtful evaluation of the issues outlined above and a comparison of the likely downside against the monetary benefit of using an open source component brings a start-up to understand what I call the “Actual Risk.”
By far, the most complicated part of the Actual Risk evaluation is the technical and legal analysis related to viral licenses. However, a technical read of the license by a knowledgeable tech attorney and code review with an engineer is likely to provide a good engineer or architect with comfort that the start-up’s use of a particular open source component is not subjecting the start-up’s code base (or the portion of the code base that they care about keeping proprietary) to any “viral” risk.
The Resource Risk
Investors and potential acquirors will want their own attorneys or possibly even code auditors to assess the Actual Risk, regardless of how correct the start-up’s own analysis may be. This investigation and analysis is a time and resource drain that can be minimized by good record keeping, but can never be entirely eliminated. Even in the event of zero Actual Risk, a company will incur some Resource Risk in connection with their use of open source software.
The FUD Risk
No matter what the final conclusion may be after the Resource Risk and the Actual Risk have been assessed and assumed by a start-up, there is the risk associated with the fact that a board member or a CEO will have to answer “Yes” to the question “Do your products contain open source?” A board member or CEO may not have the time to understand the outcomes and analysis of the folks who have willingly taken on the Resource Risk and the Actual Risk. If challenged, a board member or CEO need to feel confident that they can answer the question honestly, without incurring undue scrutiny or concern. In my opinion, the biggest risk associated with the use of open source software (assuming there is no Actual Risk that hurts the start-up’s business) is the FUD risk.
The best way to combat the FUD risk is to educate board members and CEOs so that they can comfortably speak about the company’s intelligent use of open source software as a cost reduction tool in areas where the Actual Risk is minimal or non-existent and the Resource Risks are less than the costs of the proprietary alternatives.