The ascent of both containerized applications and open-source software component building blocks has dramatically escalated the complexity of software and the burden of managing all of the associated licenses. Modern applications are often built from a mosaic of hundreds, if not thousands, of individual software components, each bound by its own potential licensing pitfalls. This intricate web of dependencies, akin to a supply chain, poses significant challenges not only for legal teams tasked with mitigating financial risks but also for developers who manage these components' inventory and compliance.

Previously license management was primarily a manual affair, software wasn't as complex in the past and more software was proprietary 1st party software that didn't have the same license compliance issues. These original license management techniques haven't kept up with the needs of modern, cloud-native application development. In this blog post, we're going to discuss how automation is needed to address the challenges of continuing to manage licensing risk in modern software.

The Problem

Modern software is complex. This is fairly well known at this point but in case you need a quick visual reminder, we've inserted to images to quickly reinforce this idea:

Applications can be constructed from 10s or 100s or even 1000s of individual software components each with their own license for how it can be used. Modern software is so complex that this endlessly nested collection of dependencies are typically referred to as a metaphorical supply chain and there is an entire industry that has grown to provide security solutions for this quagmire called software supply chain security

This is a complexity nightmare for legal teams that are tasked with managing the financial risk of an organization. It's also a nightmare for the developers who are tasked with maintaining an inventory of all of the software dependencies in an organization and the associated license for each component.

Let's provide an example of how this normally manifests in a software startup. Assuming business is going well, you have a product and there are customers out in the world that are interested in purchasing your software. During the procurement cycle, your customer's legal team will be tasked with assessing the risk of using your software. In order to create this assessment they will do a number of things and one of them will be to determine if your software is safe from a licensing perspective to use. In order to do this they will normally send over a document that looks like this:

As a software vendor, it will be your job to fill this out so that legal can approve the purchasing of your software and you can take that revenue to the bank.

Let's say you manually fill this entire spreadsheet out. A developer would need to go through each dependency that is utilized in the software that you sell and "scan" the codebase for all of the licensing metadata. Component name, version number, OSS license (i.e., MIT, GPL, BSD, etc.), etc. It would take some time and be quite tedious but not an insurmountable task. In the end they would produce something like this:

This is great in the world of once-in-a-while deployments and updates. This becomes exhausting in the world of continuous integration/delivery that the DevOps movement has created. Imagine having to produce a new document like this everytime you push to production. DevOps has allowed for some times to push to production multiple times per day.  Requiring that a document is manually created for all of your customers' legal teams for each release would almost eliminate all of the velocity gains that moving to the DevOps architecture created.

The Solution

The solution to this problem is the automation of the license discovery process. If software can scan your codebase and produce a document that will exhaustively cover all of the building blocks of your application this unlocks the potential to both have your DevOps cake and eat it too.

To this end, Anchore has created and open sourced a tool that does just this.

Introducing Grant: Automated License Discovery

Grant is an open-source command line tool that scans and discovers the software licenses of all dependencies in a piece of open-source software. If you want to get a quick primer on what you can do with Grant, read our announcement blog post. Or if you're ready to dive straight in, you can view all of the Grant documentation on its GitHub repo.

How does Grant Integrate into my Development Workflow?

As a software license scanner, Grant operates on a software inventory artifact like an SBOM or directly on a container image. Let's continue with the example from above to bring this to life. In the legal review example above you are a software developer that has been tasked with manually searching and finding all of the OSS license files to provide to your customer's legal team for review.

Not wanting to do this manually by hand, you instead open up your CLI and install Grant. From there you navigate to your artifact registry and pull down the latest image of your application's production build. Right before you run the Grant license scan on your production container image you notice that your team has been following software supply chain best practices and have already created an SBOM with a popular open-source tool called Syft. Instead of running the container through Grant which could take some time to scan the image, you instead pipe the SBOM into Grant which is already a JSON object of the entire dependency inventory of the application. A few seconds later you have a full report of all of the licenses in your application.  

From here you export the full component inventory with the license enrichment into a spreadsheet and send this off to the customer's legal team for review. A process that might have taken a full day or even multiple days to do by hand was finished in seconds with the power of open-source tooling.

Automating License Compliance with Policy

Grant is an amazing tool that can automate much of the most tedious work of protecting an organization from legal consequences but when used by a developer as a CLI tool, there is still a human in the loop which can cause traffic jams to occur. With this in mind, our OSS team made sure to launch Grant with support for policy-based filters that can automate the execution and alerting of license scanning. 

Let's say that your organization's legal team has decided that using any GPL components in 1st party software is too risky. By writing a policy that fails any software that includes GPL licensed components and integrating the policy check as early as the staging CI environment or even allowing developers to run Grant in a one-off fashion during design as they prototype the initial idea, the potential for legally risky dependencies infiltrating into production software drops precipitously.

How Anchore Can Help

Grant is an amazing tool that automates the license compliance discovery process. This is great for small projects or software that does irregular releases. Things get much more complicated in the cloud-native, continuous integration/deployment paradigm on DevSecOps where there are new releases multiple times per day. Having Grant generate the license data is great but suddenly you will have an explosion of data that itself needs to be managed.

This is where Anchore Enterprise steps in to fill this gap. The Anchore Enterprise platform is an end-to-end data management solution that not only incorporates all of Anchore's open-source tooling that generates artifacts like SBOMs, vulnerability scans and license scans. It also manages the massive amount of data that a high speed DevSecOps pipeline will create as part of its regular operation and on top of that apply a highly customizable policy engine that can then automate decision-making around the insights derived from the software supply chain artifacts like SBOMs, vulnerability scans and license scans. 

Want to make sure that no GPL license OSS components ever make it into your SDLC? No problem. Grant will uncover all components that have this license, Anchore Enterprise will centralize these scans and the Anchore policy engine will alert the developer who just integrated a new GPL licensed OSS component into their development environment that they need to find a different component or they won't be able to push their branch to staging. The shift left principle of DevSecOps can be applied to LegalOps as well. 


The advent of tools like Grant, an open-source license discovery solution developed by Anchore, marks a significant advancement in the realm of open-source license management. By automating the tedious process of license verification, Grant not only enhances operational efficiency but also integrates seamlessly into continuous integration/continuous delivery (CI/CD) environments. This capability is crucial in modern DevOps practices, which demand frequent and fast-paced updates. Grant's ability to quickly generate comprehensive licensing reports transforms a potentially day-long task into a matter of seconds.

Anchore Enterprise extends this functionality by managing the deluge of data from continuous deployments and integrating a policy engine that automates compliance decisions. This ecosystem not only streamlines the process of license management but also empowers developers and legal teams to preemptively address compliance issues, thereby embedding legal safeguards directly into the software development lifecycle. This proactive approach ensures that as the technological landscape evolves, businesses remain agile yet compliant, ready to capitalize on opportunities without being bogged down by legal liabilities.

If you're interested to hear about the topics covered in this blog post directly from the lips of Anchore's CTO, Dan Nurmi, and the maintainer of Grant, Christopher Phillips, you can watch the on-demand webinar here. Or join Anchore's OSS Slack community to speak with our team directly. We look forward to hearing from you and reviewing your pull requests!