Best Practices for Creating an Open Source Policy

Need to create an open source policy but unsure of how to get started? You're not alone, so we compiled this handy guide chock full of best practices for open source software policy writing. Learn how to get started, what to include, and who to invite to the policy writing party.

Most companies using open source software know they need an open source policy policy. However, when it comes to creating a policy companies often don't know where to start and spend months debating policy details and researching options. This guide is intended to help you write an open source software policy. But perhaps more important, it will also help you figure out who to include in the policy creation process so that your company is likely to agree upon and use the open source software policy once it's been written.

Why do you need an open source software policy?

At first many companies question the need for an open source software policy—primarily because they think it will be too difficult to create. Policy creation does require a lot of work and cooperation, but by following this guide you should be able to create and roll out an open source software policy in less than a month.

Some of the main benefits to having an open source software policy include:

  • Ensuring the company is in agreement about how to use open source software. Companies often start drafting an open source policy when somebody in management realizes they don't know how much their IT department or software products depend on open source software. A clearly-stated policy can help ensure that everyone in the company is on board with your open source strategy and that employees feel like they're empowered to use open source software where appropriate.
  • Maximizing the benefit of open source software. By creating a policy, you will put processes in place that will enable employees to use open source software effectively as well as share knowledge and workload between teams. For example, three different teams won't independently figure out how to get support for the same project, and different employees won't independently evaluate the same upgrade. Having an open source software policy and sharing information across the enterprise will enable your company to maximize the benefits of the open source software it uses.
  • Minimizing the legal, technical, and business risks of using open source software. Executive management and attorneys are often very concerned about being sued for using open source software, getting caught without sufficient technical support, or receiving bad publicity related to how open source software is used. An open source software policy can not only minimize those risks but also show concerned employees how the company is addressing those needs.

The process of writing an open source policy

The key to writing an open source software policy is just to get started! Companies typically either write, approve, and adopt an open source software policy within a month, or else they spend months working on a policy and yet fail to gain company-wide approval on the finished product. By following these steps you can ensure your company has an approved and adopted policy within a few weeks:

  • Identify key stakeholders
  • Get stakeholders to buy into the concept of a policy
  • Figure out your company's strategy
  • Create the first draft of the policy
  • Get widespread review and acceptance, starting with your stakeholders
  • Repeat last two steps as necessary

Stakeholders

Your first step—the one important to making sure that your policy is adopted—is to identify the stakeholders in your policy. There are several types, ranging from those who care desperately because you might change their ability to do their job (like developers) to those who care desperately because they think a bad policy might get them fired (like CIOs and those who report to them.) Be sure to include people who you think will disagree with your policy—better to address their disagreements upfront than to have them fight the policy because they don't like one part of it.

While you'll have to use whatever strategies work best in your organization, getting all of the stakeholders involved as soon as possible will help your policy get widely adopted more quickly. The more your stakeholders feel like it's their policy, the better. The best case scenario is if they can say they reviewed it and feel comfortable with you (or whoever is writing the policy) taking care of the details.

As you put together your list of stakeholders you should consider:

  • Developers—the people who will have to follow the policy
  • IT staff, as they probably download and use open source software
  • Managers of teams that use open source software
  • Attorneys
  • CIO and staff
  • Technical architects; many companies have architectural committees, and they should be involved

You'll probably have two groups of stakeholders: the key stakeholders who will need to approve the policy, and the people who will be affected by the policy.

Strategy

An open source software policy is meant to help your company's strategy—both its general strategy and its open source strategy.

For example, you might see open source software as a way to reduce your IT costs. In this case your strategy should not be to "use as much open source software as possible," but rather to "reduce IT costs by using open source software." This will enable all of your employees to make the right decision when it comes to choosing between open source and proprietary solutions. The policy will then help your company reduce IT costs—not just by encouraging the use of open source software that has no licensing fees associated with it, but by also leveraging the preexisting open source knowledge of your IT staff.

On the other hand, you might want to build an online community around your company's product. In this case your strategy might be to use open source software in order to encourage outside developers to help build out features that enable your community to grow. Your interest is in the community, not in making money through software sales, so you might even want to open source your own software and grow a community around it.

Identifying your open source strategy upfront will not only help you figure out your policy, but it will also help you explain to others why it's the right policy for your company.

Here's an example of what an open source strategy statement might look like:

Background Statement

Many open source software policies start by talking about the problem they're trying to solve. Whether or not you need this section probably depends on your company. You may need this section if:

  • Management doesn't know how much open source software the company uses or depends on.
  • There are widely varying opinions on how much open source software is used.
  • There's an open source software rule or policy that conflicts with reality (e.g., "No open source allowed," but your IT infrastructure is built upon open source software).
  • There are big disagreements on how the company should use open source software.

If you decide you need a background statement, make it brief. Some key things to include in the background statement (if you know them) are:

  • How much open source software the company currently uses.
  • How much open source software has or will save you—not just monetary savings, but also consider reductions in development time, consulting time, learning curves, and so on.
  • Any risks to be aware of—for example, your 24x7 website depends on an open source software package for which there is currently no defined support process.

A background statement in an open source policy might look like this:

Scope

Your company may have many policies, and it may be obvious who they cover. However, with open source software policies it is often necessary to define not only who is covered but what is covered.

Who's Covered

Most companies with an open source software policy adopt the policy company-wide. However, for many organizations it makes more sense to have a very brief company policy that simply states the strategy and provides some general guidelines for how to use open source software. Then, each division is allowed to elaborate and expand on the policy to meet its needs. In other cases, a particular division creates a policy and later tries to get the company as a whole to adopt it.

Don't forget to specify subsidiaries and agents in this definition. You might want to consult with an attorney about whether giving open source software to the company's agents or subsidiaries is considered distribution, as distribution triggers clauses in some open source software licenses.

Also, you might want to specify whether or not the open source software policy applies to everyone or just to employees in certain jobs or roles. For example, you may not care how your IT staff uses open source software in the internal IT environment, but you want to ensure that all software developers working on applications that are distributed to others are aware of the open source software policy.

Whatever you decide, make sure it's clearly stated and that you have the right people review and approve the policy. The example below illustrates one approach to defining who's covered by a policy:

What's Covered

There's a lot of misunderstanding and disagreement about what exactly qualifies as "open source software." One common misconception is that freeware, free to use, and free for personal use only licenses are open source software licenses.

Companies typically decide that any software released under a license approved by the Open Source Initiative (OSI) is considered open source software.

You need to define what is covered and what is not covered by your company's open source software policy. Many companies have different standards for open source software used in IT, development, and production environments.

You'll also need to think about what qualifies as open source software and what usage cases need to be covered.

  • Does the policy apply to using software inside the company?
  • Does it apply to shipping software?
  • To freeware? People often assume anything that doesn't cost money is open source software—that's not true, and you need to explicitly include or exclude that type of software.

An open source policy might address the issue of what qualifies as open source with language like this:

Ownership

Your open source software policy will be a living document. As business conditions change, your company becomes more comfortable using open source software, and new open source software packages and licenses become available, you'll want to adapt the policy to the new situations. In addition, an individual or team needs to be available to answer questions, provide training, and approve any exceptions.

Although an individual usually writes the open source software policy, a committee or open source review board should own the policy. A review board is most effective when it represents the main divisions in the company. If every group feels like they're adequately represented, you'll get better buy-in and compliance later on.

When to Make Exceptions and Who's Allowed to Make Them

Only a couple of people should be allowed to make exceptions to the open source software policy: the owners of the policy, and the business group or manager who's allowed to decide that the business benefit outweighs the risk of breaking from the policy.

Approval Process

While it's easier create an open source software policy before establishing an approval process, in reality the opposite usually occurs. Someone is responsible for making open source decisions, and he or she ends up pulling together a group of people to create an informal approval process. Once established, even informal approval processes can become quite elaborate and efficient.

If you don't have an approval process, you'll want to sent one up. If you have one, you'll need to review it with your open source policy in mind.

Who's Part of the Open Source Review Process?

You may want to establish a cross-divisional open source review board. This is usually the same team that owns the open source software policy. It should definitely include an attorney or work closely with one.

You'll also want the review board to include any teams that will use approved open source software, as it's important that they agree with the policy as well as the process. They can give you feedback to make sure the process integrates smoothly with their work flow so that reviews happen quickly and issues are resolved smoothly.

What Information Should Be Reviewed?

Decide what information should be included in the review process. At a minimum you'll want each open source usage request to include:

  1. Name of the employee submitting the request.
  2. Name and version number of the requested open source software package.
  3. Source of the software (website from which it was downloaded).
  4. List of the licenses associated with the software and any bundled components.
  5. Business reason for the request.
  6. Platform on which the software will be installed.
  7. Plan for integrating the open source software into other software currently being used or produced.
  8. Whether or not there are plans to modify the source code (Y/N). If yes, explain the reason for modification.
  9. Whether or not there are plans to distribute the open source software, either modified or not (Y/N). If yes, explain the reason for distribution.
  10. Plan for supporting the software, monitoring for security updates, and performing upgrades.
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