I'd like a license restricting use to non-military projects, but otherwise just like the GNU GPL. (There is obviously no point in making a permissive license like that, because editing a comment is all it takes to create a derivative work and publish it under a different license. Right?)


Such a license will be very useful to have for authors with either of two concerns:

  1. Support their business model via an additional income stream. In the best case there might eventually even be an app store, where defense contractors could readily purchase an alternative license subscription.

  2. Prevent second-hand involvement in objectionable oil wars and other conflicts where smart plump generals get to play games of turning soldiers' lives into medals. (You can see I'm not a pacifist myself.) This seems also important now that deep learning and other AI are getting smart enough to enable research into truly horrible weapons, and it might be important to speed-limit smart weapon developments relatively to smart (and corruption-proof) surveillance ones (which is hard!)

The business model part is particularly interesting, because it avoids all the trouble with non-commercial licenses, while targeting a big market segment (over 3% of GDP). Also, military agencies don't hesitate on spending when it comes to software. So the ethics of this aren't as bad as it might seem at first sight. It's primarily about making the military pay for what they use. And they have the money.


This isn't a new idea. In 2006, there was some sort of an attempt by a team to add a vague non-military clause to their use of the GPL, which is of course not allowed, as the text of the license itself has not been set free. While their text tries to restrict usage to not

[...] harm any human being nor through inaction permit any human being to be harmed. This is Asimov's first law of Robotics.

I'm interested in something a lot more specific: "any project being conducted by or receiving direct funding from any of the agencies in the following list". And a long list of departments of defense of various countries.

In fact, this seems to be a frequently asked question, according to the FSF FAQ, and their position is clear: the GPL has nothing to do with this, end of story. No further pointers. The FSF has a page showcasing the Department of Defense and its use of free and open source software, with a clever pun on being "passionate about defending freedom". But that's fair enough, given DARPA's (indirect, yet crucial) involvement in FSF's roots. As nice as the idea of free (as in freedom) software is, some would rather emphasize ethics and kindness as superior ideals, whom freedom serves.

This article about CIA's Linux-powered killer drones mentions "several software licenses" that get criticized for being pacifist, but doesn't mention what those are. At any rate, I can't find them.

The question

Is there actually already a license to this effect that has had proper attention from lawyers? If not, what is the best way to create it? Paraphrasing the GPL to circumvent its copyright is dangerous, because particular wording has magic meaning in courts of law. Perhaps there is a copyleft software license that allows restrictions to be added? Or is the reason why such a license doesn't already exist that there is some US legal mechanism that doesn't allow it? (But the DoD still has to honor Microsoft's EULAs, doesn't it?) If so, could the idea be worded in some other way to have a similar effect?

It occurred to me that the relationships between licenses could be like object-oriented programming. Just like patents talk about incorporating the content of another patent here by reference, I could write a short license that says "refer to the text of the GNU GPL", which will be provided separately verbatim, "except clauses X, Y, Z are not incorporated here, and we add clauses A, B, C." Is there any problem with this approach?

P.S. Please don't reiterate what the definitions of "open source" and "free software" are in the narrow sense. I am specifically asking about what I've outlined above, not something that meets those definitions (that would be contradictory indeed). In the broad sense, however, these licenses I'm seeking are both free and open source within the civilian population.

  • 4
    Your rationale's outline is "no military use unless I get paid for it". Well hello there Lord of War, I don't think this will earn you many sympathies :) Commented Mar 5, 2016 at 12:10
  • 4
    "Any project being conducted by ... any of the agencies in the following list": you're also going to spend your life playing TLA/ETLA whack-a-mole, because all any government that really wants your software needs to do is change an organisation's name.
    – MadHatter
    Commented Mar 5, 2016 at 13:41
  • 1
    When you deliberately ask about off-topic matters you should expect to not be very well received... consider it a gift that we haven't closed the question. Commented Mar 7, 2016 at 0:18
  • 3
    @curiousdannii Umm... what? If it's off-topic, then close the question. That comment is very hypocritical in one way.
    – Zizouz212
    Commented Mar 11, 2016 at 0:28
  • 1
    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it's not about free or open-source software within the definitions adopted by the site.
    – MadHatter
    Commented Mar 23, 2020 at 11:04

3 Answers 3


To the best of my knowledge, there is currently no "pacifist" or "non-military" FOSS license that has been vetted by actual lawyers.

Therefore if you wish to use a good license of this nature, you will need to come up with your own, vetted by your lawyers. Writing a good license is hard; for a pacifist license it would be very important to clear the ambiguities. See this question for more details: How can a "crayon" license be a problem?

To be clear, it is perfectly fine to write a new license based on the GPL, provided that you remove the preamble and do not call it the "GPL license". This is to protect the GPL trademark and ensure people do not confuse your license with theirs. For more details see What are the licensing terms of the text of the GPL?

  • I'm thinking of calling it the PNCL, which stands for "PNCL's Not Crayon License". Commented Mar 6, 2016 at 5:53

Such a license would definitely not be open source (6: No discrimination against fields of endeavor) nor approved by the FSF (Freedom 0: The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose).

The rationale for not allowing such restrictions is that defining exactly what should be allowed or forbidden will lead to a quagmire. In your particular case: Is use in computing the payroll of the military allowed? The police? Why only for civilians? What if it is used as part of a medical device, which incidentally is also used in military hospitals? If it is used in veteran care? In a civilian facility? Can it be used by UN peacekeeping forces? By the military for disaster relief? Can it be used in a research project funded by the military, even if it has nothing connecting it directly to military use (say in operations research in general)? Is use in GPS allowed, which was developed for (and is used by) the military, but has lots of civil uses too?

  • 1
    Which is how he would encourage people to pay for the software so they wouldn't have to worry about the legal ambiguities. Commented Mar 7, 2016 at 0:29
  • 1
    @TariqAli, the ambiguity is there whether they are required to pay or not. Besides, as far as I know the law doesn't allow "arbitrary discrimination", so it could be even unenforceable.
    – vonbrand
    Commented Mar 7, 2016 at 0:41
  • 3
    @vonbrand: Actually, the law has no problems with arbitrary discrimination at all. That's how lotteries work, after all ;) Discrimination is only banned when it would be based on protected attributes, and even then in many jurisdictions that's only a partial ban anyway (i.e. gender would be a protected attribute, but it's often only partially protected to benefit only women)
    – MSalters
    Commented Mar 22, 2016 at 12:52
  • 1
    Yes, this needs checking, but even if it is allowed, the discrimination line would have to be drawn very carefully to be future-proof. Any license is a bit of a bluff until it gets into a court in front of a jury and some sort of precedent is formed. The attacker could be some heavyweight agency with a team of best-of-breed lawyers drawing parallels with anticompetitive legislature and insinuating the priority of national security concerns over anything else. So the license needs not just a reasonable stance, but a compelling one, that a jury could relate to directly. Cf. UK's boycott ban. Commented Mar 29, 2016 at 12:02

I simply added to the terms of service (why would it need to be verified by a lawyer? I would use lawyers only if the terms get hugely neglected)


This is pasifistic Software. Therefore you may not use it to operate machinery equipped with destructive weaponry. Using it for any mortalizing, violent or destructive application, military or otherwise is strictly forbidden.


Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.