Everything You Need to Know About Open Source License Compliance

Open Source License Compliance 101

Open source licenses permit users to use, modify, and distribute software under specific terms and conditions. The licenses ensure the software’s source code is available to the public, fostering a collaborative environment.

However, the freedom of open-source software can also lead to confusion and misunderstandings about its usage and legal restrictions. Before we look at non-compliance risks, let’s look at some of the most common misunderstandings about open-source licenses in more detail.

Common misunderstandings about open source licenses

1. All open source licenses are the same

There are multiple open-source licenses, each with its own restrictions and requirements. Learn more about license characteristics in our complete guide to open source licenses.

2. Open source means free to use without restrictions

One of the most common misconceptions is that open source = free to use without restrictions. This is not the case. While most open source software is free to use, all have licenses that dictate usage, modification, and distribution rules. Ignoring these restrictions can lead to serious legal consequences that impact the project and the organization.

3. Open source licenses are not enforceable

Free-to-use software licenses can’t be enforced, right? Wrong! Open source licenses are still legally binding agreements; failure to comply can (and does) result in legal action and monetary damages.

4. Attribution of licenses is not necessary

While with some licenses, this is technically true, it’s good practice to give credit to the original authors of the software whether the license requires it or not.

open source license types

7 challenges of open source license compliance & their solutions

1. Identifying open source components

Given the number of dependencies in open source code, it can be challenging to identify all the components used in a project. This is particularly true if there are nested dependencies.

Solution: Utilize automated tools like MergeBase to carry out software composition analysis. These tools identify and track open source components, including their licenses, within your project, so you’re aware of what’s in use.

2. Understanding license terms

Terms and requirements for open source licenses vary along with their complexity. Often, it is challenging to understand the implications of different licenses, especially for developers without legal expertise.

Solution: Organizations should prioritize education, providing developers with license templates, FAQs, and guidance documents. Consulting legal experts for assistance in interpreting specific license terms is also helpful.

3. Managing license compatibility

Combining code from projects with different licenses can lead to license conflicts and compatibility issues.

Solution: Use tools to assess license compatibility, such as SPDX license identifiers and compatibility matrices.

4. Tracking license obligations

Open source licenses often have specific obligations, e.g., providing attribution, distributing source code, and preserving copyright notices.

Solution: Implement processes and tools for tracking license obligations, such as license headers, notices, and documentation templates. Create checklists or workflows to ensure obligations are addressed before releasing software.

5. Managing forks and modifications

Making modifications or creating forks of open source projects can complicate license compliance. This is especially true if the modifications are distributed or the project’s license changes over time.

Solution: Keep detailed records of modifications and contributions, including changes made, contributors involved, and license implications. Monitor upstream changes and license updates to ensure ongoing compliance with the latest versions of open-source projects.

6. Enforcing compliance across organizations

Ensuring consistent compliance with open-source licenses across distributed teams and organizations can be challenging, especially in large-scale projects.

Solution: Establish clear policies, procedures, and guidelines for open source license compliance with your organization. Developers should receive training and support to understand their responsibilities and obligations. Automation and collaboration tools can also be helpful to facilitate communication and enforcement of compliance policies.

7. Dealing with license violations

Despite following open source license best practices, inadvertent license violations may occur due to oversight, misunderstandings, or changes in dependencies. Addressing these violations can be time-consuming and resource-intensive.

Solution: Implement processes to address and rectify license violations quickly. Steps may include removing or replacing non-compliant components, releasing updated software versions with corrected licenses, and communicating transparently with affected parties.

The risks of non-compliance with open source licenses

Non-compliance with open-source licenses can have serious legal, financial, reputation, and operational consequences. These include:

One of the most significant risks of non-compliance is legal action. Failure to comply with these legally binding agreements can lead to lawsuits, injunctions, and monetary damages. Legal proceedings can be costly, time-consuming, and severely damaging to an individual’s or organization’s reputation.

Loss of intellectual property rights

Some open-source licenses have provisions dictating how software can be used, modified, and distributed. Failure to comply with these conditions can lead to forfeiture of rights, potentially rendering the software unusable.

Reputational damage

News of non-compliance spreads quickly, damaging reputations and leading to a loss of credibility. Given the collaborative nature of open-source software, reputation is crucial, and rebuilding the lost trust can be time-consuming and costly.

Financial penalties

Colligo estimates that the average cost of non-compliance is $14.82 million. Financial penalties for non-compliance quickly add up, especially in the case of litigation when legal fees are added to the mix.

Disruption of business operations

Legal disputes and other consequences of non-compliance can significantly disrupt operations. These disruptions lead to loss of revenue, productivity, and customer trust. In severe cases, non-compliance may force organizations to cease using or distributing the affected software, affecting product development and service delivery.

Exposure to security vulnerabilities

Lastly, non-compliance with open source licenses can stop organizations from receiving important security updates and patches. Without these updates, the system is vulnerable to exploitation by malicious actors, increasing the risk of data breaches, system compromises, and other security incidents that come with their own financial and legal headaches.

Open source license compliance best practices

  • Understand open source licenses — Familiarize yourself with the different open source license types, including their terms, conditions, and obligations. Pay particular attention to attribution, redistribution, and modification requirements.

  • Establish policies and procedures — Develop clear policies and procedures for managing open source software. Outline responsibilities, approval processes, and guidelines for using, contributing to, and releasing open source code.

  • Keep a detailed inventory of open source components — Maintain an inventory of all open source components used in your projects. (This includes dependencies and their respective licenses.) Utilize tools like MergeBase to automate the tracking and management.

  • Review and approve third-party components — Conduct thorough reviews of third-party open-source components before integrating them into projects. Ensure they comply with your organization’s policies and project requirements and obtain the necessary approvals from legal and compliance teams.

  • Monitor license compliance regularly — Use tools to analyze code repositories, identify license violations, and track changes to open source components over time.

  • Document license information and make it accessible to developers — Track the license information for your project’s open source components, including license text, copyright notices, and any modifications made to the original code.

  • Collaborate with legal experts — Consider engaging legal counsel or seeking legal advice to address complex compliance issues. This will ensure that your projects adhere to the relevant laws and regulations.

  • Contribute back to the community — If you modify or extend open source software, consider contributing your changes to the community under the same open source license type. This practice helps foster collaboration, transparency, and innovation within the open-source ecosystem.

  • Stay informed — Subscribe to relevant newsletters, join online communities, and participate in conferences and events to stay informed about developments in open-source licensing.

Looking ahead, several key trends are shaping the landscape of open source licensing. The increase in SBOM (software bill of materials) usage is driven by the need for transparency and accountability in software supply chains — particularly with government contracts. This growing widespread adoption of SBOMs will help organizations better understand and manage their dependencies, thereby enhancing security and compliance efforts.

We’re already seeing an increase in the popularity of permissive licenses, which offer greater freedom to use and distribute software. To go along with this, we will likely see a shift towards more industry-specific approaches to open-source licensing as businesses seek tailored solutions that align with unique regulatory requirements.

And finally, adopting standardization efforts is the hot topic of the day. Initiatives like SPDX (Software Package Date Exchange) are helping to establish common frameworks and best practices, facilitating clearer communication and compliance across the open-source ecosystem.


In conclusion, open source licenses play a crucial role in fostering collaboration and innovation by granting users the freedom to use, modify, and distribute software. However, navigating the complexities of open source licensing can be challenging, leading to common misunderstandings and risks of non-compliance.

Failure to comply with open source licenses can have severe legal, financial, reputation, and operational consequences. That is why it is essential to understand license terms, implement clear policies, track license obligations, and consult with legal experts to ensure license compliance at every stage of the project.