The open source definition has a non-discrimination clause. From the annotated Open Source Definition:

5. No Discrimination Against Persons or Groups

The license must not discriminate against any person or group of persons.

Rationale: In order to get the maximum benefit from the process, the maximum diversity of persons and groups should be equally eligible to contribute to open sources. Therefore we forbid any open-source license from locking anybody out of the process.

Some countries, including the United States, have export restrictions for certain types of software. An OSD-conformant license may warn licensees of applicable restrictions and remind them that they are obliged to obey the law; however, it may not incorporate such restrictions itself.

This clearly means that for a license to be considered open source, the license must not discriminate against any person or group. The license may not, for example, only allow non-profits to use the work (because non-profits are good), or disallow clowns to use the work (because clowns are creepy).

I heard people say that this also means I may not selectively license a work that I hold the copyright of under a free license. Is that true?

For example, can I grant 501(c) organizations an GPL-3 license to my software, but nobody else?

It is clear that according to the terms, they are allowed to re-distribute the software to anyone else, so the effectiveness of this might be low, but my question only pertains to whether or not I have the right to deny an open source license to some people/groups.


As I've said before, software doesn't possess any licence inherently - it is distributed (or, as the GPLv3 would have it, conveyed) under a licence.

You, as the copyright holder, may distribute your software under any kind of licence you want, to anyone you choose. You may choose to distribute it only to 501(c) organisations, and only under GPLv3, if you want to. As you correctly note, any such recipient will have the right to redistribute it to anyone they like - the GPLv3 gives them that right. But the licence under which you distribute it to those parties doesn't force you to distribute it to anyone else, or indeed to anyone at all, because you aren't bound by the licence.

  • Amen, brother! (+1) – Free Radical Jul 28 '15 at 11:31
  • ...So long as you do, indeed, hold the copyright on the entire work, i.e. you haven't incorporated contributions from other sources (unless they assigned the copyright to you, etc, etc). – Geoff Jul 28 '15 at 16:40
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    @Geoff very true, though the OP stipulates that in the question. – MadHatter Jul 28 '15 at 16:43
  • @MadHatter Thus the "do, indeed". It's possible to believe that you own the entire copyright but fail to take into account the fact that contributions create a combined work with multiple copyright holders. – Geoff Jul 28 '15 at 16:55
  • @Geoff Even if the work is a joint work, nobody has any obligation to distribute (except under some rare licenses that mandate contributing patches upstream). You can take a GPLv3 work, modify it, and refuse to distribute the modified version to anyone but clowns. Any clown who receives it would be free to distribute it to anyone else, if they so choose. – Gilles Jul 28 '15 at 19:54

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