Open source software -- Managing the legal risks

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It's a common practice for programmers to find readily available source code on the Internet that can be downloaded and incorporated into the software they are developing. Using open source software (OSS) in this manner can be very efficient. Unfortunately, there are many misconceptions about OSS, and the legal ramifications that can arise are not so simple.

It's important to know that OSS is not "free" software in the usual sense of the word. OSS provides certain elements of freedom, most typically the freedom to use it in any application, to modify it and to redistribute it. But with those freedoms often come legal baggage that can produce unexpected results.

Inclusion of OSS in a software company's products can affect more than simply the product that contains the code. It can ultimately impact major transactions. For example, the due diligence process for the sale of a company often includes an analysis of whether a company's proprietary software products contain OSS code. Finding OSS code at a late stage in the game can not only cause many headaches, it can even scuttle the deal.

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