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CIO Insight: Open Hazard

Jan 03, 2002, 14:32 (37 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Michael D. Scott, Michael M. Krieger)

[ Thanks to Dan Lark for this link. ]

"Programmers are finding a wealth of software code available to them for free on the Internet and incorporating this software into the company's systems and software products. What CIOs may not be aware of are the potential legal risks such conduct may create, particularly when open source code is used. Rare is the month when a lawyer who specializes in technology does not have a new client asking for help in untangling an open source code problem.

Many misunderstandings swirl about open source software. It does not signify that the software is in the public domain and can be used freely. In fact, the open source movement relies heavily on copyright law and restrictive licenses to ensure that redistributed code remains open and cannot be usurped by developers who might modify and release it as their own under traditional licensing and copyright restrictions.

Although no single license is used for all open source distribution, the GNU General Public License (www.fsf.org/licenses/ gpl.txt) has generally been the starting point for redistribution licenses. The purpose of the GPL, according to its preamble, is "to guarantee your freedom to share and change free softwareâ€"to make sure the software is free for all its users." Any software can be made subject to the GPL if its owners indicate that the software is "subject to the GPL." That statement will normally be found on the Web site, in the documentation or in the comments section of the source code. If the Web site merely refers to "open source," "shareware" or a similar phrase, CIOs should assume that it is subject to the GPL until they can determine otherwise."

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