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I have written a piece of software, which I am licensing to a company, moreover the license is exclusive in some specific fields of use. I am currently thinking about publishing the said piece of software as open source, under a license which would only allow non-commercial research use. The publishing is motivated by the fact that I have recently written an article about a technology contained in said software and would like other researchers to be able to use it as well.

If you think this is permissible, is there a particular license you would suggest?

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The answer to the question in your title really depends on the previous licensing agreement. For instance, any non-exclusive agreement would allow you to license your software as open source to the general public.

On the contrary, as soon as it grants some exclusivity, you cannot license it as open source without violating the previous agreement because no open source license will allow any usage restriction to apply. It is up to you to try to renegotiate the previous license agreement.

Now, you were thinking of a non-commercial, research only license. Some projects are distributed under such terms but are not open source (example of such project: https://github.com/AbsInt/CompCert/blob/master/LICENSE). CC-BY-NC is not a good candidate because any non-profit could use your project for any purpose (and this license it is not suitable for software). Only a lawyer could help you draft such license and check that this is compatible with previous agreements.

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The quick answer to the question in your title is yes, there is nothing stopping you from relicensing software - only what the current licensees think, paying for something they could have got for free ;)

Having said that, you could always give additional rights under a commercial license. As the copyright holder of your software, you can license it (including dual-licensing) as you see fit. MySQL is a popular example of this: for those who don't wish to follow the GPL's requirements, they can pay for a commercial license.


However, in regards to your question about which license to apply, if you're restricting the license to be for non-commercial research use only, it is not open source.

From point 6 of The Open Source Definition :

No Discrimination Against Fields of Endeavor The license must not restrict anyone from making use of the program in a specific field of endeavor. For example, it may not restrict the program from being used in a business, or from being used for genetic research.

Or similarly, freedom 0 of the The Free Software Definition:

The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose

Thus, there is no free/open source license you could apply to this software, with that restriction - you'd need to have a lawyer draft up a specific license that restricted the use as you wanted to.

  • Hi, thanks for the answer. The license I was thinking about is this one: creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0 What I am really wondering is whether publishing the code under this type of license would violate the exclusivity of use in selected fields. – Marek Sep 25 '16 at 21:13
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    @Marek as Tim pointed in his answer, the cc-by-nc license is NOT an open source license. – Philippe Ombredanne Sep 25 '16 at 21:55
  • @Marek Yeah, that's not an open-source license. We're not really equipped to answer questions about non-open source licenses here, so if you have a specific question about that license you might want to ask on law.se. – Tim Malone Sep 25 '16 at 22:59
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    Also, importantly, Creative Commons "recommend against using Creative Commons licenses for software" creativecommons.org/faq/… – owjburnham Nov 15 '17 at 17:11

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