Across all technology sectors, open source software (OSS) plays a vital role in supporting business functions. OSS provides programmers effective and efficient ways to start projects and offers a flexible software development process. During development, programmers discover shortcomings, bugs, vulnerabilities, and missing functionality in the open source project. Though software patches may have little patentable value, the patches can be contributed back to the original open source project to reap considerable security, cost, marketing, and human resources advantages.
For example, open source projects are able to quickly discover and patch security vulnerabilities because the engineering burden is shared across all contributors. Those vulnerabilities are discovered – and the corresponding patches deployed – more swiftly when differences are minimized between the internal fork and the open source project. Because the patches to the open source project are tested to work for a more significant portion of the codebase, patching may even be automated, with little risk of breaking any functionality. This speed is critically important in the case of high priority patches, where every unpatched system becomes a ripe target.
Further, maintaining a private fork of an open source project can be an increasingly expensive prospect. When the projects diverge, the internal and external forks need to be regularly synchronized, at a significant engineering cost and delay. Worse yet, the financial and time costs rise with the complexity of the project. Without regular synchronization, software becomes obsolete and may lose compatibility with newer versions of the open source project. This can be particularly detrimental to small and agile development teams that already have limited extra bandwidth. Open source contributions are crucial to reducing the overhead of synchronization, so engineers are focused on keeping projects on schedule rather than struggling to catch up to the latest version. OSS is normally contained within modules or packages that are upgraded or updated as a whole, thereby making maintenance more efficient for IT teams.
Additionally, open source contributions give you a seat at the table to influence the direction of the project, ensuring that features essential to your operations will continue to be supported as the project evolves. As an open source contributor, you have access to a whole community of developers working on the same project that can aid in support and troubleshooting. In this way, the effort of the entire open source community is aligned with your goals, multiplying the output of your development team without a commensurate increase in staff. Long term, your investment into the open source project means that the project evolves along with your business with little additional R&D cost or effort.
Significant reputational and human resource advantages may also be realized through open source contributions. Consistent and important contributions to the project can establish your company as a technological leader in the field. Further, other contributors to the open source project will be familiar with your codebase, thereby granting your company access to top talent that is already working with your software tools.
Instead of letting valuable code contributions be locked away in a closed repository, open sourcing that code can extract even greater value from each engineering dollar spent. Moreover, those benefits begin to accrue almost immediately after submission. With an efficient legal process for reviewing the open source contributions, a greater number of contributions can be made more quickly, further multiplying the effect.
Even better, the benefits of open source software contributions may be realized while still protecting your existing intellectual property. By reviewing the open source contribution to identify any related intellectual property assets, programmers have clear boundaries for the scope of their commits without inadvertently licensing any patents. Maintaining open source software and proper licensing disclosures is effective to avoiding legal issues since OSS is free to use or modify. This helps ensure that OSS is up to date to prevent vulnerabilities leveraged by malicious actors.
Open source software is near ubiquitous in many fields, and contributions to those projects should be a near ubiquitous asset in any diverse intellectual property portfolio. Complementing traditional patent harvesting processes and trade secret protections, the benefits of open source code accumulate to a business in unique areas such as security, efficiency, marketing, and human resources.
Christopher Mermigas Esq CCEP
HEAD OF LEGAL