How to Open Source your Project? / Making your code open source

Open Source (OSS) is everywhere. Nowadays, hardly any project can be carried out economically if existing software packages are not reused. This is advantageous for software development: The usage of Open Source increases the speed of development, reduces costs, and very often is of higher quality then similar code written in-house due to extensive collaboration of many people.

Open Source usage is frequently discussed. This article deals with the important question of what has to be considered when self-created software is to be released as open source. The comments are based on best practices and are not a legal advice.

Why make your code Open Source?

There are several reasons why companies or developers publish their own code as Open Source: Open Source-Code is a good way to build the brand and awareness for the company or a developer. If a project becomes popular, a community of likeminded developers will take on a lot of work which may result in faster development progress and much better code quality. With a higher number of developers, more use cases are being explored, resulting in a more robust code being created. Experienced developers are often interested in contributing to Open Source projects for their own portfolio and many companies have now developed their own business model around Open Source.

The popularity and success of Open Source project depends on many factors. One may be a big community, however licensing can be one of the defining factors. If individuals and organizations cannot easily use and re-distribute (often commercially) Open Source code – it may become a major obstacle and prevent such project from wider adoption. In order to simplify the use of your Open Source project for third parties, some important points must be considered.

Choose the right distribution model and license

It will be easier for the end users of your Open Source project to adopt your code if it is accompanied with a well known OSS license that clearly defines obligations under which the software can be used, and modified, distributed and combined with other work.

Before choosing the license you should choose the distribution model for your software. E.g. nowadays most of the projects are distributed over network (SaaS) but other models are also applicable e.g. physical distribution on customer end (e.g. mobile apps downloaded on phones).

Once a distribution model has been defined, choosing the right license is relatively easy. Basically your choice is between permissive and restrictive licenses. A permissive license has a minimal set of obligations on the end user. E.g. BSD or MIT are attribution style licenses which essentially require end users to maintain your copyright statement (hence they are referred to as attribution).

Restrictive licenses in contrast oblige end users to perform a lot more things, and on top of this distribute derived code under the same license. The latter obligation is often is reflected in the name of the license – with the use of the words “Public License”.

You should remember that if you yourself plan to use someone elses code you should never relicense it. I.e. you cannot pick restrictively licensed code and make it permissive.

To select a suitable license for your project, you may want to find answers to the following questions (based on recommendations by the Open Source initiative OSI):
• Should my copyright and/or license be preserved by whoever uses my code?
• Should the end user provide details on any changes upon modification of my code?
• Should the end user also make modifications (patches) to my code public?
• Should there be restrictions on private or commercial use?
• Do I want to be held liable for damages?
• Should there be an impact on patents or other intellectual property for the end user (maybe you would like them to return something back to the community in return for using code developed by you)?

Websites such as choosealicense.com or tldrlegal.com can offer some additional advice in choosing the right license. The selected license should be included with the project in a copying- or license file. Copyrights are best listed individually in each file.

Know your authors

The software in the first instance belongs to the author, this can be, for example, an individual, commercial or non-commercial organization. Knowing the copyright holder of a software is especially important for companies, because then the rights of use can be clarified with the copyright holder. To clearly identify the author in the software, a copyright notice is used. Copyright notices are a way to make it clear that you have to be consulted in how the code you create is used. If the notice is missing, it will be difficult for users to identify who created the software and it will be impossible to obtain permission to use it in case of doubt. A missing copyright can result in companies not allowing to use a certain Open Source product. Hence you should carefully mark all your files with appropriate copyright holders. Also, when your project is open sourced, and some community members have started contributing into your project you should establish some way to carefully attribute everyone’s contributions.

Create Bill of Materials (BoM)

Finally, it is important to list all other Open Source code used in your project. This can be a difficult task to accomplish, especially if creators of OSS-packages used, have not taken care of that themselves. The creation of a BoM is a time consuming and daunting task which usually is not feasible to perform manually. It is advisable to create a BoM with a tool that automatically finds licenses and copyrights from the code and compiles them accordingly.

To re-cap before open-sourcing your project
1. Carefully choose distribution model of your code and license that fits that model (a well known OSS license is best)
2. Establish all Copyright holders in the code you’re Open-Sourcing making sure you do not infringe anyones copyright
3. Create bill of materials of all third-party code in your project

Bitsea has over a decade of experience offering organisations advice, consultation and auditing services in areas of Open Source Governance, Code Quality and Application Security. If you want to open source your project or consider using open source in your organisation we are happy to provide you our help and answer your questions.

Good luck with open sourcing!

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