Open-Source Compliance Insurance
In the past few years, some insurance companies started offering insurance services against the legal risks that can result from using open-source software. The insurance policy often is called open-source compliance insurance. The insurance policy (depending on the issuing company) offers coverage for monetary damages, including profit losses related to noncompliance with open-source software licenses and the cost of updating the offending code.
This section presents guidelines to observe when dealing with compliance inquires. These guidelines aim to maintain a positive and collaborative attitude with the requester of compliance information while investigating the allegation and ensuring proper handling in case of license violation. Figure 6 illustrates the recommended steps to follow when dealing with open-source compliance inquiries.
Several companies received negative publicity and/or got sued because they either ignored requests to provide open-source compliance information, did not know how to handle compliance inquires, lacked or had a poor compliance program, or simply refused to cooperate, thinking it was not enforceable. By now, we know that none of these approaches is fruitful or beneficial to any of the parties involved. Therefore, as a general rule, companies should not ignore open-source compliance inquiries. Instead, they should acknowledge the receipt of the inquiry, inform the inquirer that they will look into it and provide a date when to expect a follow-up.
You should understand who the reporter is, the motivation and whether the accusation is accurate or even current. Furthermore, not every reporter understands licenses fully, and sometimes there may be mistakes in the submissions. Make sure you fully understand the inquiry and that you have all the necessary information to isolate the problem and investigate it internally. If that's not the case, ask the reporter to be specific and provide you with the missing details to start your investigation.
Keep an open dialog with the reporter and show that your company maintains rigid compliance practices. Highlighting your open-source compliance program and practices shows a good-faith effort toward compliance. Send updates of your internal investigation when they are available.
After concluding the internal investigation (within an acceptable time limit) through the review of the compliance due diligence completed for the specific software component (or product) in question, inform the reporter of the results.
If indeed there is a license violation as reported, it is your responsibility to resolve the issue with the reporter, while being collaborative and showing goodwill. You need to understand the obligations under the applicable license and show how you will meet the obligations and how soon.
SFLC's Practical Guide to GPL Compliance
On August 26, 2008, the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC) published a guide on how to be compliant with the GNU General Public License (GPL) and related licenses. The guide focuses on avoiding compliance actions and minimizing the negative impact when enforcement actions occur. The guide is available at www.softwarefreedom.org/resources.
This article provides an overview of open-source compliance, the challenges faced when establishing a compliance program, industry practices and recommendations on how to deal with compliance inquiries.
Open-source compliance is an essential part of the development process. Start with a simple, lightweight compliance process and practice and learn and adjust as you proceed. Look at common practices for inspiration, but most likely you will make adjustments to fit your specific company's needs.
If you use open-source software in your product(s), and you don't have a solid open-source compliance program, consider this article as a call to action.
Ibrahim Haddad is Director of Open Source at Palm, Inc., and a Contributing Editor for Linux Journal.