3. Open Source Software: Using open resources

(This video can be downloaded from Media Hopper Create.)

What are the main conditions I should think about when using OSS?

  1. What are the licenses and terms of use?
  2. What are my obligations under this licence?
  3. Will this affect patents or trademarks?
  4. What are the services and support I can get from the community?
  5. Are there options to purchase from the community?
  6. Who produces it and what is the decision making process?
  7. How is it organised?
  8. Can you get involved in the direction the software takes?
  9. What are the governance structures around it?
  10. How do you want to become engaged?

What are the typical governance models in Open Source Communities?

“Meritocracy” – Ensure there is a route in which you can obtain the influence over the project that corresponds to the level in which you want to get involved.

“Benevolent Dictator” – this is OK if that person is aligned with your goals and manages the project in a way that it will not interfere with the direction you want to take.

What licences should I look for and what are the main types of license?

There are hundreds of licences that have been developed, however, you should try to pick a standard licence that has been vetted by the wider community. The advantage of standard licences is that all the information you need is online, and you do not need lawyers to check them out.

OSS licenses generally fall into one of two categories:

CopyLeft – The outbound licence has to match the inbound licence. An example of one of these would be the GPL (GNU Public Licence).

Permissive – The inbound licence does not need to match the outbound licence. You can distribute this under a different licence, as long as the original licence and referencing for the material that you used, is contained within the output.  E.g. MIT license, Apache Software License, BSD license  

In Open Source Software nearly all of the licencing conditions and obligations are triggered by the distribution of software.  So, if you are using the software to run a service, the license conditions may not affect you very much. As long as you are not redistributing the software itself you can use it as you like.

There are one or two exceptions to this, for example “the service provider loophole” (see , tries to clamp down on this by defining the provision of a service as the distribution of software. An open data platform called ckan is licenced under the AGPL and contains this clause. If you host a website that is run by that software, you have to make your code behind your website available to others to download under the same licence.

What kinds of problems can I run into when developing software using OSS software?

Developing software can often require a blend of open source software, other software developed under different licenses, and sometimes without any clear licencing at all.

You will need to ensure

  1. That the range of software components are all a good fit for the intended use
  2. That the software be integrated so that it can all work together (interoperability)
  3. That you keep clear records so that all software components can be identified easily

You may need to consider

  1. Removing components if you are reselling, or redistributing the product
  2. Replacing or rewriting the software components completely when the use changes
  3. Creating non-standard licenses that combine the different licences of the software for your customers
  4. Negotiating new terms and a new licence with the original software creator (this can be problematic when there are multiple authors in a community)

Important: When there is no clarity on conditions of use you must assume that all rights are reserved and no copying is permitted.  


Use the information above to examine the OSS that you shortlisted in the Finding What You Need activity.

Research the various licenses, the communities, and ecosystem around the OSS software that you are considering for use. Lastly narrow down your options further and select the most useful software for your project or business purposes.

Find out more