Navigating the License Maze

Just like Google, Apple, or SAP – companies like Siemens have literally thousands of software engineers working on programs to make the devices, systems, and machines operate efficiently. In doing so, these programmers not only spend their time writing Siemens software but also participate in the development of open source software. As part of a global collective of creative programmers, they contribute to the development of powerful new programs as well as future standards and standard processes. To date, however, there is still no system for cataloging these software components in a clear and intelligible way. But now Siemens Corporate Technology is about to change that.


by Hubertus Breuer

Not everything freely available is also free of charge. Java, for example, a computer-programming language for developing and running digital applications, had long been offered as freeware. In a surprise move, however, its developer, the software company Oracle, has now started levying a license fee from commercial users. It was an expensive surprise, and because Java is in widespread use and difficult to replace, most companies have little option but to pay up for the privilege of using it.


How can companies avoid falling into a similar trap? Even for the big players such as Siemens, which employs over 20,000 software developers, programming all your own software is not a realistic proposition. For Siemens, it would just take too much effort to write all the programs required to run the company’s products in the sectors of energy supply, industrial automation, mobility systems, and infrastructure. 

Instead, Siemens software developers regularly turn to open source software (OSS). The best-known example of this is the operating system Linux. Developed by creative programmers worldwide, OSS is free of charge, industry-neutral, and freely available. It therefore enables efficient collaboration between different market players. OSS is based on a simple but smart idea: the greater the number of people who contribute their know-how, the better a software platform will be at performing a wide range of tasks. It’s a highly successful model. The Internet, for example, relies heavily on open source software – as do supercomputers, automated production plants, and the microprocessors in household appliances and cars. 

Through the Maze

That’s one big reason why major corporations – not just Siemens but also software giants Google, SAP, Apple, and Microsoft – commit time and money to the development of OSS. In so doing, they are also furthering their own interests, for the access they gain to OSS platforms and components means their own innovations are faster to develop and end up more robust.


On the flip side, there are certain rules restricting how OSS can be used. Each piece of software comes with a license, in which the developers specify what is and isn’t allowed. For example, a license may stipulate that users must continue to make the source code available to all users even after modifications, or that certain information be published in the product documentation. Open source software also sometimes contains other open source components that are governed by different licensing terms. “It can be difficult keeping track,” says Oliver Fendt, Senior Manager Open Source Software at Siemens Corporate Technology. “But if you want to tap the full innovative potential of OSS for a company, then it’s vital to do just that.”

Major corporations, also software giants Google, SAP, Apple, and Microsoft, commit time and money to the development of OSS.

So how can you find out about relevant software and the restrictions governing it? “There can be quite a few licenses in one single software component, stipulating how it can be used,” Fendt explains. But without a standard directory of all software components and their respective licenses, there is no easy way to navigate through this maze. As things stand, if software is used without a proper check, there’s a very good chance of a license or even copyright infringement. That can mean that the legal department has to get on the case – and could quite possibly lead to a company facing penalty payments in the millions of dollars. 

An Instant Overview

What’s needed, in other words, is a program that will quickly tell you whether there are any restrictions or requirements regulating the use of a specific software. “We therefore decided to develop the directory software ourselves,” says Michael C. Jaeger, another open source expert at Corporate Technology and head of the SW360 open source software project, launched back in 2014.


SW360 lists the software components that are already in use at Siemens or have been tested for future use – irrespective of whether they are open source or supplied by a commercial third-party supplier. This covers all the usage rights and associated obligations for each program and an indication of which other licenses these are compatible with. When software developers wish to use a certain software component – or discover which software Siemens is already using and for what purpose – they simply use a search dialog to call up the requisite information from a database. This way, potential licensing issues can be avoided before they become costly. At the same time, the catalog also shows whether more-recent versions of the software are available and whether they have any known bugs. 

An Open-Source Resource

SW360 is not a purely in-house project. As Siemens has recognized the general lack of an easy-to-use directory of licensing terms it developed SW360 as open source software. SW360 is nominally under the stewardship of the Eclipse Foundation, which – alongside the Linux Foundation – is one of the most important organizations for the further development of open source software.

In other words, the program is also available to other companies. That not only saves them any licensing fees. Since the source code is open, they are also at liberty to tailor the software to their own needs. Bosch, for example, was quick to recognize the benefits of the project and has provided over 40 percent of the source code. This means that Bosch plays a central role in shaping the functionality of SW360. Other companies and external software developers also contribute. “Bosch doesn’t lose out here; quite the reverse, in fact,” Jaeger says. “Programs like this are not part of its commercial portfolio. SW360 is a common resource from which everyone can benefit.” 


Hubertus Breuer

Picture credits: Von oben: 1. Bild Getty Images, 2. Bild Getty Images/Hoxton, 3. Bild Shutterstock/spainter_vfx

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