Limiting the use of an OpenSource application

Ian Lance Taylor ian at
Sat Mar 2 23:08:35 UTC 2002

John Richter <jmrichter at> writes:

> Does anyone know if there is a sort of "socially responsible" open source
> license (a la socially responsible mutual funds)?

I've never heard of one (unless you count licenses which prohibit
``commercial use'').

Given the nature of the software business, such a license would be
difficult to write.  Let's take your example of open source accounting
software.  You might write a license saying that a company which uses
sweatshops couldn't use it.

But what about an accounting or auditing company?  If they use your
software, are they permitted to do work for a company which uses

What if your software provides an interface which can be used by other
packages, perhaps an inventory package.  What if that inventory
package is written by a company which uses sweatshops?  Is that
permitted?  Is it OK for a third party which doesn't use sweatshops to
use both pieces of software?

The relationships in the software world can become very complex very
quickly.  It's hard to write a license which is both comprehensible
and is able to segment the user population of the software.

[ out of order ]

> I ask this because this requirement puts companies with "ethical
> practices" rules in a strange position. A company might have a rule saying
> that it won't do business with companies that use sweatshop labor, for
> example. They couldn't release any code they wrote as open source, because
> to do so could violate their ethical practices rule (a sweatshop-using
> company might decide to use their open source accounting software, for
> example).

I don't see how that would violate the ethical practices rule.  The
fact that somebody uses software which I wrote does not imply that I
am doing business with them, any more than the fact that somebody may
read this posting implies that I am speaking with them.

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