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I'm currently developing a game. I want to publish its code online (i.e. GitLab, GitHub, etc.) in order for people to review it, learn and get ideas from it. But I also want to be able to sell it at a later point. And because I want to be able to sell it, I don't want to make it too permissive.

I can think of two vague ideas for this, but I'm not sure if they would work:

  1. Specifically license it as "Proprietary". (Is that even an actual license?)
  2. Use dual licenses, as some other applications and libraries do.

Does any of these options work, or is there another way? And since it's a game, are there any special rules for content?

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The question you have to ask yourself is "what makes the game unique?".

Most games are a combination of code (the actual programme) and art assets (graphics, music, sound...). They do not necessarily need to form a single entitiy, but can be licensed differently.

Another thing to mind, besides the license, is the name of the game. If you want to be able to market it exclusively, you will like to register it as trademark or similar, so that you have exclusive right to use that name. Others with access to the source will have to choose a different name when they distribute binaries (e.g. like with firefox where all software is open source, but you may not re-use the name).

That said, a copyleft license like GPL, or possibly even AGPL if the game requires a server-side part, might make it difficult for anyone without access to the art assets to make a business without investing a lot into creation of the arts. Examples for these kind of approach are games like Ryzom.

If you start to accept patches from the outside you will become bound by the chosen license yourself, too - unless you make contributors sign a CLA before in which you make them grant to you or the project the right to use the code also under other TBD licenses. With a CLA signed, you could word it such that you can be allowed to choose an arbitrary license later - even a non-open source one.

Specifically answering your question:

  1. "Proprietary" is no license in particular. It just means "most rights reserved" and most often includes "you may not pass on the software to other people", and you distribute it under your own specifically-worded terms.
  2. Yes, you can do that. As the sole copyright owner you don't even have to decide that now as you can always change the license for future releases. Just be aware that you cannot revoke an OSS license on already released versions. If you are popular enough and the community big or engaged enough, they might then decide to fork from the last available open source version and continue the project without your consent and without any legal leverage on your part (that's after all the whole point of open source licenses).
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  • A CLA doesn't transfer copyright; that's a CTA (Copyright Transfer Agreement). But I agree that one thing a CLA often addresses is relicensing. – MadHatter Dec 15 '20 at 19:14
  • Ok, I see, thank you. I changed the sentence to reflect the transfer of right to change the license (skipping mentioning of copyright) – planetmaker Dec 15 '20 at 19:24
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Dual licensing GPL and a commercial license might make sense.

People can use the software in open source projects free of charge, but have to pay for a commercial license to use the software in proprietary projects.

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    Sounds reasonable for other types of software. But when would someone ever use a game in a proprietary project? – user_159754667 Dec 15 '20 at 19:29
  • Relicensing the game as proprietary is what I mean. – JNic Dec 15 '20 at 19:44

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