Open-Source Software Development: LicenseSpring’s Ultimate Guide

Published on: May 29, 2024
Word cloud outlining key terms associated with OSS.
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Open-source software, as a development style, has changed how organizations handle licensing. By encouraging creativity, teamwork, and higher productivity across different industries, it has become a popular choice for companies. Understanding open-source software is crucial for developers, businesses, and technology enthusiasts because of its growing importance in the market.

This article provides an overview of open-source solutions, covering key topics such as an introduction to open-source, ways to monetize OSS, and compliance considerations.

What is Open-Source Software?

As the name implies, open-source software (OSS) refers to any software project that makes their source code publicly available to view, modify, improve, and often redistribute. These usage rights are governed by the license granted by the author to any of the users of the software. As we shall see later, there are many different flavors of OSS, with varying degrees of freedom to the Licensee.

Since open-source software encourages transparency and collaboration amongst community members, open-source software programmers can work together to further its growth.

Key Characteristics

Open-source software is defined by several key characteristics:

  • Accessibility: Anyone can see, use, and alter the source code without restrictions.
  • Modifiability: Users are allowed to change the code to meet their own requirements.
  • Distribution: Users are free to share modified or original program copies.
  • Community-Driven: A group of developers who work together to enhance the software frequently drives development.

Diagram outlining the four main characteristics of OSS: accessibility, modifiability, distribution and community-driven.

Popular Projects with Open-Source Code

Several well-known open-source projects have become cornerstone pieces of the tech industry and beyond, allowing for many technological advancements within everyday applications.

The Linux operating system is an open-source kernel that can be used on a wide variety of devices, including (but not limited to) personal computers, smartphones, servers, and supercomputers.

Apache HTTP Server, a free and open-source web server software known for its stability and rich feature set.

Mozilla Firefox, an open-source web browser known for its speed, security, and commitment to user privacy.

WordPress is a versatile content management system that powers over 40% of websites and has an extensive library of themes and plugins that allow for easy customization.

Prevalence of Open-Source Software

Open-source software is widely utilized across various sectors, which demonstrates its versatility and universal acceptance.

Statistics and Data

Sectors and Industries

In the technology sector, major companies like Google, Facebook, and Microsoft take advantage of open-source software implementations, either by using themselves or contributing to existing ones. For example, Google supports TensorFlow and Kubernetes and Facebook develops projects like React. Microsoft has taken a different approach, by embracing open-source software through movements like acquiring GitHub and making contributions to the Linux kernel.

In healthcare, open-source software can be used when developing medical-related software, such as electronic health records, medical research tools, and patient management systems. Some example open-source projects, OpenMRS and GNU Health, enhance healthcare delivery and research capabilities.

Governments all around the world utilize open-source software for open data initiatives, public service tools, and transparency in digital services. Adopting open-source software can result in cost reduction, no risk of vendor lock-in, and customized solutions to meet specific needs, which can foster a greater sense of community engagement.

Notable Organizations

NASA employs open-source software for space missions, research, and data analysis tools like NASA WorldWind. These efforts offer valuable information for educational and research purposes, encouraging further advancements in space exploration and scientific discovery.

Tesla incorporates open-source software into its automotive software, allowing for rapid innovation and enhancements. By doing this, Tesla not only benefits from contributions provided by the open-source software community but also promotes a culture of teamwork within the industry.

Parts of an Open-Source License

Open-source licenses define how software can be used, modified, and distributed. The three typical parts of an open-source software license are permissions, conditions, and limitations.

Differences Between Popular Open-Source Software Licensing Options

The MIT License is a permissive license with minimal restrictions. It allows extensive freedom to use, modify, and distribute the freely distributed software. Users must include the original copyright and license notice in any substantially used portions of the software, however. This flexibility makes it easy to utilize MIT-licensed code in both open source and proprietary software.

The GNU General Public License (GPL) is a copyleft license that requires any works that use the software to be distributed under the same license. This ensures that deriving works remain open source and that distributors always provide access to the source code. The GPL is an ideal license format for projects that prioritize keeping all derivative works open source.

The Apache License is a permissive license that includes a patent grant, offering protection against patent litigation for users. Provided the license terms are met, it also allows for the integration of Apache-licensed code into proprietary software projects. This includes the requirement to include a copy of the license and a notice of any changes that have been made to the code. The Apache License's patent grant is particularly important for commercial software vendors concerned about intellectual property risks.

The Eclipse Public License (EPL) is a copyleft license that allows users to use, modify, and distribute the software, but requires that any modified versions be made available under the same EPL license. This is similar to the previously mentioned GPL, however the key difference is that the EPL allows for more flexibility when combining with proprietary code, since it does not require the entire combined work to be open sourced. This license strikes a great balance between promoting the collaboration of open sourcing and protecting contributors from legal repercussions.

The Berkeley Source Distribution (BSD) License is a permissive license that has very few restrictions. It allows for free use, modification and distribution of the software, regardless of whether it is in open-source or proprietary projects. This license type is known for its simplicity and flexibility, with users only having to include copyright notice, disclaimer of liability, and list of conditions when redistributing the code. This license type is very similar to the MIT License, with the primary difference being that the BSD License includes a non-endorsement clause, which adds an additional layer of protection for the project's name and contributors.

Flowchart to assist with selecting which OSS license type is right for you.

Permissions, Conditions, and Limitations

Permissions are the rights granted to users by the license. These can include the ability to use the software for any purpose, make modifications to the source code, and distribute either the original or modified versions of the software. For example, since the MIT License grants broad permissions, this means that they allow for extensive freedom in how the software is used and shared.

Conditions are the requirements that users must meet to use the software legally. Some typically included conditions include providing credit to the original software developed and disclosing the source code of any modifications. The GPL requires that any modified versions of the software also be open source and available under the same license, this is an example of a condition set by the license.

Limitations are restrictions on the use of the software. These often include disclaimers of warranty, meaning the software is provided "as-is" without guarantees, and liability limitations, which protect the original developers from being held responsible for any issues arising from the derived software's use. The Apache License, for example, includes a limitation of liability clause to protect developers.

How to Monetize Open-Source Software

Generating revenue from open-source software can be achieved in several ways.

One common strategy is offering paid support and services. By providing professional support, training, and consulting, developers can help consumers effectively utilize the software while generating income.

Another strategy is the dual licensing model. This involves offering the software under both open source and commercial licenses, allowing developers to charge for additional features or enhanced versions. This approach caters to users who need more advanced capabilities and are willing to pay for them.

Creating premium features or add-ons is also an effective revenue strategy. Developers can build additional features or modules that are available for a fee, attracting users who require advanced functionality beyond the base version of the software.

Lastly, sponsorships and donations can provide ongoing revenue. By seeking financial support from users and organizations that benefit from the software, developers can secure funds to sustain and further develop their projects.

Monetization Case Study

QT uses a dual licensing model, offering its software under both open source and commercial licenses. This allows them to provide a free version while generating revenue from users who need the additional features and support of the commercial license.

For information about monetizing closed-source software see 5 Pillars of Software Monetization.

How to Comply with Open-Source Software License Agreements

General Guidelines for Compliance

To ensure compliance with licenses associated with open-source software, it is important to follow several key practices. First, thoroughly read and understand the terms of each open-source software license used in your project. Knowing the specific requirements and restrictions of each license is essential for proper adherence.

Next, maintain detailed documentation of all open-source software components and their respective licenses. Keeping accurate records helps track compliance and simplifies the auditing process.

Lastly, conduct regular audits of your software. These audits verify that all components are used in accordance with their licenses and help identify any compliance issues that may arise over time. Regular audits are crucial for ongoing adherence to open-source software license terms.

Tools to remain complaint with OSS licensing requirements

Managing and complying with open-source software licenses can be facilitated by various tools and resources. License scanners, such as FOSSology, can scan codebases for license compliance, identifying any potential issues and ensuring that all components adhere to their respective licenses.

Software composition analysis tools, like Synopsys Black Duck, can help to analyze software components and dependencies, making sure that all licenses are properly accounted for and complied with. These tools are essential for maintaining proper oversight and compliance in projects utilizing open-source software.

How are Open-Source Software Agreements Enforced?

Enforcement of open-source software licensing is very important when ensuring that users and developers follow the specified terms and conditions. These licenses are what declares how software can be used, modified, and distributed, which maintains the open-source ethos of collaboration and sharing.

Mechanisms for Enforcing Open-Source Software Licenses

Legal Actions:
Legal actions are a primary method for enforcing open-source software licenses. When a party violates the terms of an open-source software license, the rights holder can pursue legal actions, such as seeking injunctions to stop the infringement, demanding monetary damages, or requiring the violator to comply with the license terms. High-profile legal cases often set precedents that shape the enforcement landscape and clarify confusion in license interpretations.

Community Monitoring:
The open-source software community plays a vital role in monitoring the use of open-source software. Community members, including developers and users, often report potential violations to the appropriate authorities or organizations. This collective vigilance helps ensure that software usage aligns with license requirements. Community monitoring relies on the collaborative nature of open-source projects, where transparency and mutual oversight are foundational principles.

Open-Source Projects Enforcement Example

Versata vs. Ameriprise:

This case involved a GPL license being enforced, and led to a legal settlement. Versata, the software provider, claimed that Ameriprise had violated the GPL by not complying to the license terms when incorporating GPL-licensed code into its proprietary software. The settlement exemplified the importance of adhering to GPL requirements and outlined the legal consequences of non-compliance by external users.

Key Organizations Supporting Open Source Software

There are organizations dedicated to promoting and protecting open-source solutions that also play a significant role in license enforcement:

The Free Software Foundation (FSF) is a leading advocate for free software and is instrumental in enforcing compliance with the GNU General Public License. The FSF provides educational resources to promote the public's understanding of free software principles and addresses GPL violations through legal action when necessary. The organization's compliance lab offers information and support for developers and companies to ensure they always adhere to GPL requirements.

The Open Source Initiative (OSI) focuses on the promotion and protection of open-source software through education, certification, and advocacy. The OSI's certification of licenses as "open source" helps to maintain standards and clarity regarding what is and isn't considered open-source software. Although the OSI does not directly enforce licenses, its key role in establishing widely accepted definitions and practices supports the broader enforcement ecosystem.

Should you Open Source your Projects?

Benefits of Open Sourcing

The first benefit an organization will notice by open sourcing their software is the increased community collaboration and innovation it results in. I touched on this above, since this is a benefit for both the contributor and the original developer, but by making the source code readily available to a global open source community of developers, you will welcome diverse expertise into your development process, decrease the time for bug fixes, and increase development speed.

Another positive is that open sourcing software develops a greater transparency and trust. Allowing users and stakeholders to see how the software is built builds trust and confidence in the quality and security of the product.

As well, open sourcing also has the potential for widespread adoption. When a software is made to be readily available, it can be adopted by a wide variety of different users and organizations. This widespread use increases the impact and reach of the software, increasing its popularity and potentially making it a well-known software.

Risks of Open Sourcing

One concern is the loss of control over how the software is used and modified. Once the code is open, the original developer cannot fully control its usage, meaning others may modify or distribute versions that conflict with your ideal use-case. This has the potential to lead to fragmentation and potential reputational risks if poor versions are created using parts of your open sourced project.

Exposure to competition is another risk. By publicizing your source code, competitors receive access and the ability to use your code to enhance their own products, which may reduce your competitive advantage in the market. Although this level of openness fosters collaboration, it also enables rival companies to use your work for their gain, or at the very least inspect how a project approaches or solves a certain challenge.

Intellectual property concerns also present a significant issue with having open-source projects. Open sourcing can create issues related to intellectual property, since the open nature of the software could lead to potential misappropriation or disputes over ownership and usage rights. It requires careful consideration and implementing specific licensing strategies to protect your intellectual property while encouraging open contributions from the community.

Potential security vulnerabilities are another growing concern. While the openness of open-source software allows for many eyes to contribute to and troubleshoot code, it also means that malicious users can examine the source code for weaknesses. For instance, Sonatype's annual State of the Software Supply Chain Report highlights a 700% increase in repository attacks over the past three years. These attacks often involve cybercriminals injecting malicious components into open-source libraries, which are then distributed downstream and integrated into applications used by businesses and consumers. Additionally, the is a noticeable rise in dependency confusion attacks, where attackers introduce malicious packages with names similar to legitimate ones, has become a prevalent technique. This method allows attackers to exploit vulnerabilities before they are detected and patched

At LicenseSpring, we often have internal discussions on whether we should open source parts or all of our technology. At this time, we chose to keep everything closed source (except for our SDKs which are written in non-compiled languages), since the risks well outweighed the benefits, in our view.

Should you Contribute to Existing Open-Source Software Projects?


The first, and most obvious, benefit of open-source software is cost savings. Since open-source software is typically free to use, it has the potential to significantly reduce software expenses for both individuals and organizations. This financial advantage makes open-source software an attractive option for start-ups and small businesses which operate on a limited budget.

Next, open-source software offers unparalleled flexibility and customization. Since open-source software offers the consumers a high level of freedom to access and modify the source code to fit their specific needs, they are able to possess a level of customization that is impossible with proprietary software. This customizability will lead to more tailored solutions to better meet the needs of end-user.

Finally, open-source software benefits from the support and collaboration of the community. Often, an active community of programmers constantly contribute to open source development. This collective effort enables rapid development, with new features and improvements being regularly added to the software. This also means that bug fixes are typically quick, often faster and more often than in proprietary solutions.


One significant disadvantage of open-source software is the lack of formal support. Unlike closed-source software, which often includes a dedicated customer support service, open-source software users may need to rely on informal channels for assistance, such as community forums. This can be a challenge for developers that are in need of immediate or specialized support during the development process.

Compatibility issues can also arise when using open-source software. Open-source solutions may not always combine well with proprietary software systems or other software environments. This can lead to compatibility problems, which will require additional effort from developers to ensure smooth operations. In some extreme cases, software developers may need to develop project-specific solutions or workarounds, which can be expensive timewise.

Alternatives and Complementary Approaches to Open Sourcing Your Software

Proprietary Software

Retaining control over the source code and distribution allows for tighter control over how the software is used and monetized.

Proprietary software allows companies the ability to protect their intellectual property, create unique product offerings, and use licensing fees to generate revenue.

This approach often provides a competitive advantage by keeping innovations out of the public eye and limiting paying customers access to the software’s functionality.

Hybrid Models

Finding a balance between open source and proprietary software elements can reap the benefits from both sides.

Hybrid models allow companies to open source specific parts of their software to encourage community contributions, while keeping key components confidential.

This strategy is used to attract a broad user base, foster innovation, and create a community around the software, all while having proprietary critical aspects of the product that are essential for business success and differentiation.

Inner Source

Applying open source practices within an organization fosters internal collaboration and advancements without fully open sourcing the code to the public.

Inner source development encourages the use of open-source methodologies, like transparent workflows, combined code repositories, and pair programming practices, but strictly within the confines of a company.

This approach has the potential to improve efficiency and accelerate development cycles, which leads to higher quality software and a more innovative work environment.


Open-source software offers many benefits and opportunities that are not available in proprietary software development, including increased opportunities for innovation, collaboration, and significant cost savings. By understanding the ins and outs of open-source software, businesses and developers can take advantage of developing and contributing to open-source solutions.

Consider joining the free software movement, and open source your own software in order to unlock its vast potential today!


Common Questions and Answers About Open-Source Software

What is the distinction between free software and open-source software?

Free software focuses on user freedoms, while open-source emphasizes collaborative development and transparency.

Can I use open-source software for commercial purposes?

The majority of open-source software licenses allow commercial use, such as the MIT license, enabling businesses to leverage open-source solutions for profit. There are a few exceptions, like the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike (CC BY-NC-SA) license.

How do I choose the right open-source software license for my computer programs?

Consider your goals, the level of control you want, and compatibility with other open-source software licenses. Research each license's terms and consult with legal experts if needed.

What are the legal implications of using open-source software?

Ensure compliance with license terms to avoid legal issues. Understand the permissions, conditions, and limitations of each license and maintain proper documentation.

Can I use open-source software in my proprietary project without having to open source my project?

Absolutely, you can use open-source software in your closed-sourced project, but please refer to the license of the open-source software you are using. Permissive licenses, like MIT, may allow you to use, edit, and distribute the software without having to open source your own code. However, there are copyleft licenses, like GPL, that require you to open source your own project if you decide to distribute it and it includes GPL-licensed components. It always comes down to reviewing the specific license terms to ensure proper compliance as a member of the open-source community!

What is the difference between permissive and copyleft licenses?

Permissive licenses, like the MIT and BSD licenses, allow for the free usage, modification, and distribution of software with minimal restrictions. This license type permits integration with proprietary software and doesn't require the derived works to be open sourced.

Copyleft licenses, like GPL and EPL, require that any modified or derivative works be distributed under the specified license terms. This ensures that all derivative works remain open sourced, which promotes software freedom but also restricts integration with proprietary software.

What is the difference between strong and weak copyleft licenses?

Strong copyleft licenses, like GPL, require any derivative works and combined works that include the licensed code be distributed under the same license. This is to ensure that any modifications and extensions added are all combined under the same license and remain open sourced.

Weak copyleft licenses, like EPL, apply the copyleft requirement only to modified versions of the source code, not other code that is only linking or combining with the licensed code. This option allows for more flexibility when including open-source code in proprietary code bases.

Kyle Brandon
Kyle BrandonSystems Engineer - LicenseSpring Software
Kyle Brandon is a Systems Engineer at LicenseSpring Software, based out of Vancouver, Canada. With over two years experience, Kyle helps current and prospective customers with ensuring successful implementation of all LicenseSpring has to offer. Specializing in Computing Science, Kyle uses that experience to assist with troubleshooting user-reported bugs and provide helpful guides.