Open Source Licenses to Avoid: Exploring the Legal Risks

Illustration depicting illegal shell companies involved in money laundering and tax evasion

Short Answer:

Open source licenses to avoid: Be cautious of high-risk licenses like GPL and AGPL due to stringent terms, posing legal challenges. Opt for low-risk licenses like Apache, BSD, MIT for flexibility and minimized legal risks. Key is understanding legal implications and ensuring compliance with open source license management practices.

In today’s rapidly evolving technological landscape, the adoption of open source software is more prevalent than ever. However, navigating the complex world of open source licenses can be a daunting task, with potential legal risks lurking beneath the surface. This blog post sheds light on the legal risks associated with open source licenses, high-risk open source licenses to avoid, and practical strategies for managing these risks to ensure your organization’s success.

Short Summary

  • Understand the legal risks associated with open source licenses to protect an organization from potential issues.
  • Avoid high-risk licenses such as GPL and AGPL, and carefully assess medium risk ones before use.
  • Low risk open source licenses provide flexibility while mitigating legal risks – ensure compliance through management practices & license tracking tools.

Understanding the Legal Risks of Open Source Licenses

Utilizing open source software can bring numerous benefits, such as increased collaboration, innovation, and cost savings. However, these advantages come with certain legal risks, including non-compliance, infringement, and liability issues. To safeguard your organization from potential legal pitfalls, it is crucial to comprehend the intricacies of open source licenses and adhere to their terms.

Open source licenses, such as the GNU General Public License (GPL), come with specific terms and conditions that outline what users may or may not do. Permissive open source licenses, on the other hand, grant more freedom to users while still requiring attribution. Regardless of the type of license, it is essential to be aware of the legal risks associated with each and to engage in open source license management.

Non-Compliance Consequences

Failing to comply with open source license terms can lead to serious consequences. Licensors may pursue legal action against those who violate the license, potentially resulting in financial costs, project delays, and reputational damage.

Moreover, non-compliance with open source licenses may expose businesses to copyright infringement risks. Ensuring compliance with license regulations can help organizations avoid these pitfalls while still reaping the benefits of open source software. It is essential to prioritize open source license compliance and implement robust management practices to prevent any potential legal issues.

Infringement Issues

Copyright infringement is a significant concern when utilizing open source software. For instance, the GPL is designed to protect open source software from becoming proprietary, imposing strict terms on its use and distribution. Failure to adhere to these terms can result in legal complications and potential copyright infringement lawsuits.

Businesses must be vigilant in understanding and complying with the terms and conditions of the open source licenses they use. Doing so not only helps to avoid copyright infringement issues, but also fosters a culture of responsible software development and collaboration within the organization.

Liability Concerns

Utilizing open source software in products or services can expose businesses to potential liability issues. These may include copyright infringement, breach of contract, and liability for damages. Failure to comply with open source licenses may result in legal action, such as copyright infringement lawsuits, cease and desist orders, and other sanctions.

To mitigate these liability concerns, organizations should adopt strategies for managing open source license risks, such as ensuring compliance, educating development teams, and utilizing license tracking tools. By taking a proactive approach to managing these risks, businesses can confidently leverage open source software while minimizing their exposure to legal consequences.

High-Risk Open Source Licenses: Which Ones to Avoid

Certain open source licenses pose a higher risk for businesses due to their more stringent terms and conditions. For instance, the following licenses are considered high-risk open source licenses that businesses should avoid.

  • GPL 2.0
  • GPL 3.0
  • AGPL 3.0+
  • LGPL 2.1
  • LGPL 3.0

These licenses, including the same license, can potentially result in legal complications if not properly managed.

In the following sections, we will delve deeper into the restrictions and risks associated with these high-risk licenses.

GPL and AGPL: The Most Restrictive Licenses

The GNU General Public License (GPL) and the Affero General Public License (AGPL) are widely known as two of the most restrictive open source licenses. They are both used to protect the software and the freedom of its users. These licenses impose stringent requirements regarding the use, modification, and distribution of the software. In order to copy, distribute, and modify the software, it is necessary to keep track of changes and dates within the source files, and any modifications must be made available under GPL-licensed code.

The strict requirements of GPL and AGPL licenses can be difficult to adhere to and may result in legal repercussions if not managed correctly. Businesses should exercise caution when considering the use of software under these licenses and ensure they fully understand the implications and potential risks involved.

LGPL: A Lesser Risk, but Still Worth Avoiding

The GNU Lesser General Public License (LGPL) is a free software license that provides developers with additional permissions and allows for the use of essential libraries while still maintaining certain restrictions. However, the LGPL imposes stipulations on the utilization of the software, such as necessitating that any alterations to the software be made accessible to the public and that any derivative works be licensed under the same terms as the original software.

While LGPL licenses may not be as restrictive as GPL and AGPL, they still pose potential risks for businesses. Adhering to the terms of the LGPL can be challenging, and failure to comply may expose organizations to legal risks. Therefore, it is essential for businesses to carefully assess the risks associated with LGPL licenses and consider alternatives if necessary.

Medium-Risk Open Source Licenses

Medium-risk open source licenses, such as copyleft licenses, include:

  • Artistic License 2.0
  • Common Development and Distribution License
  • Microsoft Public License
  • Mozilla Public License (MPL) 1.1

Offer a balance between flexibility and restrictions.

In the following section, we will explore this balance and discuss the implications it has for businesses when selecting the appropriate open source license.

Balancing Flexibility and Restrictions

Striking a balance between flexibility and restrictions in medium-risk licenses involves weighing the freedom to alter and disseminate the software against the limitations imposed by the license. This balance is crucial for businesses to consider when selecting a license for their open source software, as it may impact their ability to customize the software or comply with certain license terms.

Semipermissive licenses, such as the Mozilla and Eclipse public licenses, impose certain restrictions on users. These restrictions require that modifications to the source code be made available under the terms of the given license. While these licenses offer more flexibility than restrictive licenses like the GPL, they still impose some limitations that businesses should be aware of when choosing an open source license.

Safe Choices: Low-Risk Open Source Licenses

Low-risk open source licenses, such as:

  • Apache
  • BSD
  • Code Project Open
  • ISC
  • MIT

Open source software licenses are safe choices for businesses looking to minimize the legal risks associated with open source software. These licenses offer greater flexibility and are often compatible with proprietary software, making them a popular choice for many organizations.

In the following sections, we will discuss the advantages of permissive licenses and their compatibility with proprietary software.

Advantages of Permissive Licenses

Permissive licenses, such as the MIT License, offer numerous benefits to businesses. These licenses grant users a broad range of rights with minimal limitations, making them an attractive option for organizations looking to leverage open source software without the added legal risks. The MIT License, for example, permits the use of source code in any way, provided that copyright and license notices are maintained. By adopting a permissive license like the MIT License, businesses can enjoy the advantages of open source while minimizing potential legal issues.

By adopting permissive open source licenses, businesses can enjoy greater flexibility in their software development processes and minimize the potential for legal issues associated with more restrictive licenses. This increased freedom allows organizations to innovate and collaborate more effectively, while still adhering to the necessary legal requirements when using open source code.

Compatibility with Proprietary Software

One of the key benefits of low-risk open source licenses is their compatibility with proprietary software. This compatibility allows businesses to utilize open source software in conjunction with proprietary software, without infringing on the proprietary software’s copyright or other intellectual property rights.

For example, the MIT License, the Apache License, and the BSD License are all compatible with proprietary software. This compatibility not only provides businesses with increased flexibility in their software development processes, but also helps mitigate the risk of potential legal issues stemming from license violations.

Strategies for Managing Open Source License Risks

Managing open source license risks is essential for businesses that want to leverage the benefits of open source software while minimizing potential legal issues. In this section, we will discuss practical strategies for managing these risks, including:

  • Ensuring compliance
  • Educating development teams
  • Utilizing license tracking tools.

Ensuring Compliance

To ensure compliance with open source license terms and avoid potential legal issues, it is important to implement robust management practices. Some best practices for ensuring compliance include:

  • Identifying all third-party components and conducting a thorough inventory of the open source licenses used in the software
  • Creating a centralized license inventory
  • Assigning a single inventory manager if possible

Additionally, using tools such as a software bill of materials (SBOM) can help track and manage open source licenses, while meeting compliance requirements can be achieved by utilizing a detailed license compliance checklist. By following these best practices, businesses can effectively manage open source license risks and ensure that they remain legally compliant.

Educating Development Teams

Educating development teams about open source license risks and best practices is another crucial strategy for managing license risks. By raising awareness and creating clear policies, businesses can help ensure that their development teams understand the importance of compliance and are equipped to make informed decisions when selecting and using open source software.

Regular updates and training can also help keep development teams up-to-date on the latest open source license risks and best practices. Encouraging a culture of compliance within the organization can further mitigate the risk of license issues and promote responsible software development practices.

Utilizing License Tracking Tools

License tracking tools are essential for effectively monitoring and managing open source license risks. Some popular tools include:

  • Black Duck SCA
  • FOSSology
  • WhiteSource
  • OpenChain

These tools can help identify potential issues with open source licenses automatically, saving time and reducing the risk of license violations.

By utilizing license tracking tools, businesses can:

  • Gain a comprehensive understanding of the open source components in their software
  • Identify any associated legal compliance issues
  • Proactively address potential risks
  • Safeguard their valuable intellectual property.


In conclusion, understanding and managing open source license risks is crucial for businesses that want to leverage the benefits of open source software while minimizing potential legal issues. By familiarizing themselves with the different types of open source licenses, adopting permissive licenses, and utilizing strategies such as compliance, education, and license tracking tools, organizations can effectively navigate the complex world of open source licenses and harness their power to innovate and collaborate in a legally compliant manner.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the bad open source licenses?

Certain restrictive open source licenses, such as GPL 3.0 or AGPL, can be bad due to their requirement that your software be released under the same license, royalty-free.

Which open source license has a potential high risk?

Open source licenses with potential high risk include restrictive ones such as the GNU General Public License v2.0 and the GNU Lesser General Public License v3.0, which can cause significant risks depending on how they are integrated.

These licenses can be difficult to understand and may require legal advice to ensure compliance. It is important to understand the implications of using these licenses and to ensure that they are used correctly.

Which is the most restrictive open source license?

GNU General Public License (GPL) and GNU Affero General Public License (AGPL) are the most restrictive open-source licenses.

What is the least restrictive open source license?

The least restrictive open source license is Public Domain, allowing anyone to modify and use the software without any restrictions or conditions. Unlicensed is another option that makes open source available to the public domain with no conditions.

Lastly, the Mozilla Public License (MPL) is a weak copyleft license that allows users to modify or use code in proprietary software as long as the code is kept in separate files and copyright notices are retained.

What are the main legal risks associated with open source licenses?

Open source licenses come with a range of legal risks, such as non-compliance, infringement, and liability concerns.

Legal Disclaimer

The information provided in this article is for general informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal or tax advice. The content presented is not intended to be a substitute for professional legal, tax, or financial advice, nor should it be relied upon as such. Readers are encouraged to consult with their own attorney, CPA, and tax advisors to obtain specific guidance and advice tailored to their individual circumstances. No responsibility is assumed for any inaccuracies or errors in the information contained herein, and John Montague and Montague Law expressly disclaim any liability for any actions taken or not taken based on the information provided in this article.

Contact Info

Address: 5422 First Coast Highway
Suite #125
Amelia Island, FL 32034

Phone: 904-234-5653

More Articles