To minimize this risk, some open source projects such as MySQL require all contributors to assign copyright of their code to a central organization. The industry, however, is divided as to whether such a policy really guarantees customers greater protection.
But what’s important to note is that open source projects are by no means alone in incorporating code from multiple parties. According to Greg Jones, associate general counsel for commercial Linux vendor Novell, "The degree to which the third parties own the code in your offering changes, but the concept of having third-party code that may be fundamental to your offering is common to both major proprietary software products and open source software products."
In general, copyright infringement poses very little risk for software end-users. The issue is slightly more complex for customers who wish to incorporate open source code into their own software. Even in these cases, however, guidance and support from an established open source vendor can help mitigate these risks and ensure disputes can be remedied quickly and without financial consequences for the customer.
What's in a name?
Trademarks have minimal influence over IT purchasing decisions, but they do at times play a role. A trademark acts as a seal of authenticity, assuring customers that a product is backed by the full faith and reputation of a specific vendor. ("Linux" is itself a trademark owned by Linus Torvalds.) But because users of open source software are generally entitled to create derivative works based on the original code, occasionally a derivative "fork" of an open source project can appear that is not entitled to use the same trademarks as the original.
Loss of a trademark does not necessarily translate to loss of business value to the customer. For example, when the Debian Project altered its distribution of the Firefox Web browser to comply with Debian policies -- including minor source code changes and the removal of some artwork that could not be distributed under Free Software license terms -- the Mozilla Foundation refused to allow Debian continued use of its Firefox trademarks. As a result, the Debian version of the browser is called "Iceweasel," despite being functionally almost identical to Firefox.
Occasionally, a derivative project will offer greater value than the trademarked original. The X.org windowing system, which began as a fork of the trademarked XFree86 project, has since become the preferred graphics layer for most Linux distributions. Because of this, customers should be doubly sure to evaluate open source projects for features, community, and commercial support, rather than relying on trademark branding alone.
The patent issue
At present, software patents appear to pose the greatest risk for adopters of open source software, at least in the United States. Attempts to introduce software patents into law in the European Union have been defeated, due in no small part to the efforts of open source vendors and activists. But patents are routinely awarded to U.S. software developers, often for seemingly trivial algorithms.