Using Open Source in Commercial Products


Over the last decade the open source movement has seen rapid expansion and adoption by many companies operating in disparate markets. Using open source components in a commercial product may speed up the time to market while reducing the development costs and risk. In addition open source components may have features and functionality that is not available in proprietary subcomponents. This article gives an overview of some popular open source licence types for hardware and software, their advantages and also their disadvantages.

Open Source Software

Open source software seems to everywhere, whether in your mobile phone (Android runs on top of the open source Linux kernel) or running your favourite web site. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of open source software licences and numerous products but the most popular licence types are GPL, LGPL and BSD with 52% of open source projects using these licences as of May 2014 when this article was written.

The program source code is the preferred form coverered by the licence, but this can vary. Source code is human readable text used to generate a binary application that is then executable.

GNU General Public Licence (GPL)

This is one of the more difficult licences for a proprietary product as any software produced that contains a GPL component is also automatically subject to the GPL licence. The GPL licence requires publishing the products entire source code and any derived works, keeping any existing copyright notices unmodified. This normally prevents it's use in closed source software.

GNU Lesser General Public License (LGPL)

This licence is intended for reusable software components called libraries that are intended to be used by other open source or proprietary software. The LGPL licence does not require that the products source code be published in the way that the GPL does.

Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD)

This is one of the most permissive licences and basically allows anything to be done with the BSD licenced source code and no publishing of source code is required. The only requirement is attribution of any existing copyright notices in the product source code and documentation. One notable example of BSD licenced software use is the original Microsoft Windows TCP/IP networking stack.

Open Source Hardware

Perhaps due to the more complex and costly process to create a piece of open source hardware the open source hardware movement is at an earlier stage in the adoption process although this may change due to the emergence of crowd funding sites for hardware projects.

Licencing of open source hardware is normally achieved through licencing the hardware build documentation such as circuit board schematics and Printed Circuit Board (PCB) layouts and the GPL or LGPL licences are sometimes used here although it is not well suited to the task.

One popular hardware specific licence, the TAPR Open Hardware License is a GPL type licence covering both documentation and the physical products created from it. This has the same pitfalls as using GPL licenced components in a proprietary product.


We are not lawyers and this paper does not consitute legal advice. We strongly recommend getting advice from a law company specializing in Intellectual Property (IP) matters before using open source products in any commercial product.