Open source simplifies software effort but increases legal concerns

  • 25-Nov-2013 04:41 EST
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Magneti Marelli engineers cut design time in half by using open-source software, but they had to pay more attention to licensing issues. Consulting firm, Black Duck, helped in that effort.


Infotainment systems often account for a solid portion of the 100 million or so lines of code on today’s vehicles. That’s prompting many product developers to turn to open-source software, which can trim the overall development cycle roughly in half.

But intellectual property specialists note that engineers should pay close attention to the legal side of what’s often considered free software. Open-source software may not have royalties or up-front fees, but free doesn’t mean users can deploy it without any concerns.

“Open-source software is licensed software,” said John LeRoy, a specialist at Brooks Kushman, an intellectual property and technology law firm. “Some licensing terms are short and simple, others are complex. Engineers understand it as free; lawyers understand that when you use open-source code, you have to do certain things.”

Magneti Marelli is one of the firms that’s bullish about using open-source software. Its engineers spent more than two years developing an infotainment system for a major European car manufacturer. The OEM wanted to use Genivi, an open-source platform based on Linux-based core services, middleware, and open application layer interfaces. Using the Genivi infrastructure cut the design cycle in half.

“To accomplish the same task using proprietary software would have taken three or four years,” said Roberto Carmeli, Lead of Software Management for Infotainment at Magneti Marelli. “Our work has resulted in the accumulation of nine to ten million lines of code, excluding the kernel code. The vast majority of the code has been developed by Magneti Marelli and by external suppliers; the remainder was developed by the customer.”

Though using open-source software can trim some of time spent developing software, it requires close attention to legal issues such as licensing. LeRoy explained that some licenses only require users to put a notice or logo on the display screen or in the documentation. Other licenses require that companies publish their source code. Design teams that ignore those issues enter a danger zone.

“Companies that don’t comply with open-source licensing obligations may be found liable for copyright infringement,” said Ryan Pasquali, Marketing Director at Brooks Kushman.

That was an issue that came up right at the start of the infotainment platform project handled by Magneti Marelli, which did not work with Brooks Kushman.

“The manufacturer requested clear proof of compliance,” said Magneti Marelli’s Rubens Sarracino, an open-source specialist. “The entire volume of code had to be reviewed for free and open-source software (FOSS) license compliance, a task prone to human error when handled manually.”

Magneti Marelli worked with Black Duck, a consulting firm that focuses on automotive developments that use open-source software. Pasquali noted that outside help was necessary because most external suppliers did not provide proper bills-of-materials for their software components. Additionally, it was even difficult to furnish proof of compliance for in-house developed code. Magneti Marelli suspected that thousands of different open-source snippets were buried somewhere in the code base, but there was no easy means of identifying them or detecting their provenance and license obligations.

“Black Duck helped us be more productive by avoiding issues right from the beginning, thus avoiding unnecessary rework,” Pasquali said. “Our developers have become much more aware of the need to ensure compliance with the right processes and tools when using open-source components. They now ask first before integrating a piece of code, which has led to considerably fewer problems with new code.”

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