The Game Lawyer Blog

3 tips for using Open Source software in game development

Are you using Open Source Software?

If you’re not aware of the specifics of your license, you may end up in trouble later on.

Open Source software (OSS) and tools are commonly used in game and software development, particularly by indie developers without the cash to purchase more expensive game engines. However, using Open Source when developing a product that you plan to sell later can introduce some issues. If you’re not aware of the specifics of your license, you may end up in trouble later on. Here’s a few tips to keep in mind when leveraging OSS in your game development projects.

Tip 1 – Understand that OSS is NOT freeware or shareware

There is a common misconception that OSS is the same as freeware, just because it is created by volunteers. Let’s get some definitions out of the way (bear with me if you already know this stuff):

  • Freeware = software is free to use without paying a license, but source code is generally not made available to the public
  • Shareware = software is free to use for a trial period or generic cialis pharmacy a limited version, but payment is expected at some point or on some condition
  • OSS = software is created by volunteers working together and is usually freely usable, but with restrictions that are detailed in the license agreement

You can’t assume that, just because the software is free and open source, you can do anything you want with it. Each piece of software can come with its own specific licensing arrangement, or it can borrow a generally accepted existing software license.

Tip 2 – Read the license, know what you’re getting into

OSS licenses usually come in three flavors: Copyleft, Permissive and File-based (though they may be known by different names).

  1. Copyleft licenses essentially allow you to freely use and modify the code, but you are required under the license to redistribute the modified code as open source. If your proprietary version of the software relies on relicensing your modifications, you may be out of luck using OSS under this license. You also lose out on any trade secrets that may be included in your software development, which could be a valuable asset for your company.A good example of a Copyleft open source license is the GNU General Public License.
  2. Permissive licenses allow modification and free distribution, as with Copyleft, but they give the option to redistribute under a different license. Therefore, you don’t always have to redistribute your changes under the same Copyleft license. This allows you to retain trade secret protection on your modifications and get licensing fees on your work. Seems like a good idea to use these, hint hint.Examples of this type of license are the MIT or BSD licenses.
  3. Lastly, we have File-based open source licenses. These strike a balance between the two other types of licenses. Basically, you have the original open source software and your modifications separated into different files, so the OSS is relicensed under the same license while your proprietary code is under whatever license you want it to be.An example of this type of license is the GNU Lesser General Public License.

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Tip 3 – Take inventory of what OSS you’re using

Provide this list to your attorney so that they can ensure you are staying within the scope of your license and that your company’s business model is in compliance with these licenses.

If you’ve been shooting from the hip so far and not keeping good records about what licensing you’re using, it’s time to do an inventory. Get a list of the OSS that is integrated into your product. This includes everything from the version number, date, type of license it is licensed under, and what modifications you have made to the OSS. Provide this list to your attorney so that they can ensure you are staying within the scope of your license and that your company’s business model is in compliance with these licenses. If not, you may have to modify things to either find new software or change your business plan to stay compliant. It’s a small price to pay to avoid any legal hassle in the future! For more assistance in working with open source software or any other game development legal issues, why not contact a game lawyer? If you want to know more about general gamedev law, check out my two free ebooks and checklists, as well. photo credit: deconstructed miracles are none at all and order is such a human concept via photopin (license)

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California game lawyer focused on providing end-to-end legal protection and legal services for video game and board game developers, as well as software and mobile app developers.
California game lawyer focused on providing end-to-end legal protection and legal services for video game and board game developers, as well as software and mobile app developers.
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