Understanding Open Source Licenses: Mitigating Risks and Ensuring Compliance with Safety CLI

May 31, 2024
4 mins
Learn how to navigate the complexities of open-source licenses to mitigate legal and operational risks with Safety CLI. This comprehensive guide covers the prevalence of open-source software, key licenses like GPL, MIT, and Apache, and introduces the Business Source License (BSL). Discover the consequences of non-compliance, including legal actions and operational disruptions, and explore strategies for developing a robust licensing policy.


In today's fast-paced technological landscape, the choice of software components can significantly impact an organization's operations and security posture. While functionalities and security are often priorities, one crucial factor frequently overlooked is open-source licensing. Understanding and complying with open-source licenses is vital to mitigate legal and operational risks. This article delves into the complexities of open-source licenses and demonstrates how Safety CLI can help developers identify and manage these licenses effectively.

The Prevalence of Open Source in Modern Software

Open-source software (OSS) has become a cornerstone of modern software development. Statistics reveal that nearly all contemporary software incorporates open-source components. This widespread use of OSS brings about significant implications for development practices, necessitating a comprehensive understanding of the associated licenses.

Types of Open Source Licenses

Overview of Key Licenses: GPL, MIT, Apache

There are numerous open-source licenses, each with distinct terms and conditions. Among the most prominent are:

  • GNU General Public License (GPL): A copyleft license that requires derived works to be distributed under the same license.
  • MIT License: A permissive license allowing reuse within proprietary software, provided attribution is given.
  • Apache License: Another permissive license, it includes provisions for patent rights, making it favorable for many enterprises.

Introduction to Copyleft and Permissive Licenses

Copyleft licenses, like the GPL, mandate that any derived work must also be open source, ensuring that contributions remain open to the community. In contrast, permissive licenses, such as those from MIT and Apache, allow more flexibility, enabling integration with proprietary software.

Understanding Business Source License (BSL)

The Business Source License (BSL) offers a middle ground between traditional open-source and commercial licenses. It allows for free use of the code in non-production environments while restricting its use in production. BSL is particularly advantageous for businesses seeking to strike a balance between open-source collaboration and commercial protection.

Comparison with Traditional Open-Source and Commercial Licenses

Unlike copyleft and permissive licenses, BSL provides a pathway for monetization while maintaining some level of openness. This makes it an attractive option for companies looking to secure their intellectual property while fostering community engagement.

Risks of Non-Compliance with Open Source Licenses

Non-compliance with open-source licenses can lead to severe consequences, including:

Legal Risks

  • Lawsuits: Legal action from license holders can result in costly settlements.
  • Fines: Financial penalties for violating license terms.
  • Forced Open-Sourcing: Proprietary code may need to be released under an open-source license if it includes copyleft-licensed components.

Operational Risks

  • Codebase Reengineering: Non-compliance may necessitate significant rework to remove or replace offending components.
  • Component Replacement: Finding and integrating compliant alternatives can disrupt development timelines.

Developing a Licensing Strategy for Your Organization

Establishing a robust licensing strategy is essential for mitigating these risks. Key steps include:

Setting a Clear Policy on Licenses

Organizations should define which licenses are acceptable and under what conditions. This policy should be communicated clearly to all stakeholders involved in software development.

Role of Legal Teams

Legal teams play a crucial role in interpreting license terms and ensuring compliance. They should be involved in reviewing and approving the use of open-source components.

Communicating and Enforcing the Policy

Developers and engineers should be educated about the organization's licensing policy. Regular audits and compliance checks can help enforce adherence to these guidelines.

Leveraging Safety CLI for License Compliance

Introduction to Safety CLI’s Capabilities

Safety CLI is a powerful tool designed to scan for vulnerabilities in Open-Source dependencies. Beyond vulnerability management, Safety CLI helps identify and manage open-source licenses, ensuring compliance across your software supply chain.

Identifying and Managing Open-Source Licenses

Safety CLI can detect problematic licenses in your dependencies, providing actionable insights to address potential compliance issues before they escalate.

Generating and Managing SBOMs with Safety CLI

Explanation of Software Bill of Materials (SBOMs)

A Software Bill of Materials (SBOM) is a comprehensive inventory of all components within a software application, detailing their licenses and versions.

How Safety CLI Produces and Maintains SBOMs

Safety CLI can be output to SPDX formats, allowing organizations to track and manage their dependencies effectively within their SBOMs. These SBOMs facilitate transparency and accountability in license management.

Benefits of Using SBOMs for License Management

SBOMs provide a clear view of the licenses in use, helping organizations ensure compliance and avoid potential legal pitfalls.


Understanding open-source licenses is crucial for mitigating legal and operational risks. With Safety CLI, developers can effortlessly manage licenses, ensuring compliance and securing their software supply chain. By integrating Safety CLI into your development workflow, you can confidently harness the power of open-source software while safeguarding your organization's interests.

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