Firms with no open source usage policies face legal battles

17 Nov 2008

Although more than 85pc of companies use open source software (OSS) in their enterprises, moving to 100pc of businesses in the next 12 months, few have policies around the use of open source.

A survey by Gartner found that 69pc of firms do not have any form of open software usage policy, and are in danger of facing enormous liabilities for intellectual property (IP) violations.

“Just because something is free, doesn’t mean that it has no cost,” said Laurie Wurster, research director at Gartner.

“Companies must have a policy for procuring OSS, deciding which applications will be supported by OSS, and identifying the IP risk or supportability risk associated with using OSS. Once a policy is in place, then there must be a governance process to enforce it,” Wurster said.

The Gartner survey results indicate that OSS in new projects is being deployed nearly equally in mission-critical and non-mission-critical situations. Although the adoption rate is higher for the more mature infrastructure OSS projects and components, more projects related to application software are in progress and are planned to start within the next 12 months.

Of the large number of application software projects, respondents indicated a higher rate of using OSS as a replacement for commercially available products, while using mostly OSS components for their infrastructure development.

In areas where OSS projects are most mature, IT departments appear comfortable with using OSS components to enhance existing infrastructure environments. However, in the less mature areas of application software, OSS is more readily used as a replacement for commercially available software, probably because of the cost and sophistication level required to customise many application products.

When respondents were asked to select the top three most important reasons for using OSS, they consistently said that lower total cost of ownership (TCO) and reduction in development of cost-prohibitive factors were major factors for selecting OSS. Another strong reason for using OSS was that it makes it somewhat easier to embark on new IT projects or software initiatives.

Some respondents indicated that they also use OSS as investment protection against a single vendor ‘owning’ the entire IT department. Others said the major business reason for using OSS projects and components was faster time to market, which better positions them to meet the unique demands and requirements of internal and external customers and, in many cases, provides them with the ability to avoid complex procurement rules and procedures.

Governance, or the lack of it, was the No 1 challenge for OSS users in the survey, followed by conflicting terms and conditions and the availability of too many licence types and forms.

“Understanding when and how an OSS alternative may be used is a frustrating process, especially when there are so many licence types and forms from which to choose,” Wurster said.

“As time goes by, many of these concerns will be addressed, but this continues to be a slow process. Increases in OSS popularity and in the rate of OSS adoption will drive the required changes,” Wurster added.

By John Kennedy

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years