In the software development community, it’s commonplace to take advantage of user-contribution sites such as StackOverflow or generative AI tools like GitHub Copilot to solve programming tasks.
StackOverflow user contributions are made available under a weak copyleft license, whereas AI tools are trained on open source. As a result, the code suggested by generative AI tools can include snippets of open source software. Developers may decide to drop this code directly into their projects to save time, but using open source code also comes with certain risks including the potential for license compliance issues.
What is a Code Snippet?
A code snippet is a short piece of code that can be used to perform a specific task. Code snippets are often found online, such as on message boards like StackOverflow or via generative AI tools like GitHub Copilot, and can be copied and pasted into a developer’s own code.
Benefits of Code Snippets
There are many benefits to using code snippets. Copying and pasting code can save developers time and effort, allowing them to solve problems quickly without writing net-new code for every single function.
Here are some of the reasons why developers use code snippets:
- To save time and effort
- To learn new programming languages and techniques
- To solve specific problems
- To experiment with different ideas
One such example of this is searching out open source code to perform specific functions. Finding a snippet of code that does what the developer wants is often more efficient than rewriting the lines of code individually. Copying and pasting small sections of code streamline the work that developers do, allowing them to move faster.
What are the Risks of Using Code Snippets?
While using code snippets can be a convenient way to save time and effort, it is important to be aware of the risks involved. For example: code snippets may not be properly licensed. If a developer copies and pastes a code snippet into their project without checking the license, they could be violating the terms. This could lead to legal liability for the developer and their company. It can be very impractical for developers to investigate license terms without a software composition analysis (SCA) tool; they should use one that is robust enough to detect code snippets.
Another risk of using code snippets is that they can be harder to detect. Traditional open source license detection tools are designed to detect full open source components, rather than short snippets of open source software. In part, this is because developers often modify snippets before they are used, which can make them difficult to match to the original source code. This makes it even harder to ensure license compliance.
Ensuring that developers and compliance teams can reliably detect open source code snippets allows them to fully capture all license requirements and reduce the risk of a compliance violation.
The Impact of Code Snippets on Compliance, Security, and Quality
There are several risks associated with using code snippets, including the following:
- License compliance:Code snippets may not be properly licensed. If a developer copies and pastes a code snippet into their project without checking the license, they could be violating the terms of the license. This could lead to legal liability for the developer and their company.
- Security vulnerabilities: Code snippets may contain security vulnerabilities. If a developer copies and pastes a code snippet into their project without reviewing it carefully, they could be introducing a security vulnerability into their application.
- Code quality: Code snippets may not be of high quality. If a developer copies and pastes a code snippet into their project without understanding it, they could be introducing bugs into their application.
Many SCA tools won’t detect code snippets in their analysis. This opens up companies to the risk of noncompliance, especially when it comes to AI tools that may not check for licensing restrictions.
Further, license propagation complicates matters. There are more than 2,000 license variations, creating challenges in tracking the different types of licenses that any code snippet might be under. Many code snippets are from permissive licensed open source, which does streamline compliance, but only if they can be detected accurately.
How to Take Advantage of Code Snippets
To confidently take advantage of resources like StackOverflow and generative AI, a software composition analysis (SCA) tool with snippet detection is a must. FossID’s SCA tool, Workbench, detects open source code down to the snippet level, even if they have been modified.To do this, FossID creates cryptographic hashes of all code and then matches that against your code.
In addition, FossID Vulnerable Snippet Finder checks for the presence of vulnerable code snippets introduced by open source CVEs (Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures) that can make your software vulnerable to exploitation. While most security scanners assume vulnerabilities based on component and version, FossID bases its search on the exact lines of code/snippets that make your products vulnerable.
The business value of leveraging FossID for code snippet detection includes faster development cycles, greater innovation, and lower risk. By detecting code snippets, FossID can help developers save time and effort while avoiding license compliance issues, security vulnerabilities, and code quality problems.
Code snippets are an easy way to speed up development and solve software challenges. They’re also a common way for developers to introduce open source code into their projects which comes with certain security, compliance, and quality risks.
FossID, however, can detect code snippets even if they have been modified. By using FossID, software development teams can protect their products from open source compliance issues and security vulnerabilities.