I just recently gave an answer on this stack exchange mentioning the relatively new, source-available, but not (strictly) open-source, Commons Clause License. The original question asks if it is possible to license software as open source, but for non-commercial use only. I do realise that under the 'strict' definition of open source, the only possible answer is simply: No.

Another user, I am quite sure in good faith (presumably through the review queues?), immediately added a comment that my answer was 'off topic'? Were they - even technically - right?

Some thoughts:

  • If the name 'opensource' of this stack exchange is read literally, then presumably even licenses which are approved by the FSF but not the OSI would be 'off topic'...
  • If I had tried to ask or answer something about 'source-available' licenses on some other stack exchange site, I'm pretty sure I'd have been told I was off topic there, and quite probably redirected to here

So I'd hope that it is in some sense officially the case that all of the following are reasonably on topic here:

  • Open source software licenses as defined by the OSI
  • Free software licenses as defined by the FSF
  • Other closely related concepts, such as:
    • Whether, and if so how, it's possible (not opinion-based!) to do something similar to an open/free license, but with restrictions against commercial use
    • Other source-available, but not strictly free or open source, licenses
    • Dual licensing

Can anyone help?

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    Does this answer your question? How do I ask for a license recommendation? Commented Mar 4, 2020 at 16:22
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    Thanks, I found that one and another one, which are indeed relevant. I've updated my question in response.
    – MikeBeaton
    Commented Mar 4, 2020 at 17:04
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    I haven't thoroughly examined your question here nor your answer on the main site, but I think this Meta answer of mine is probably also relevant to your edit: Are Source Visible Questions On Topic? However, my argument there is largely culture-based, but it's unclear how rigorously it would hold up again a hypothetical strong argument that there does exist a source-available culture/community. (I am not prepared to make such an argument myself.)
    – apsillers Mod
    Commented Mar 4, 2020 at 19:55
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    Does this answer your question? Are Source Visible Questions On Topic? Commented Mar 23, 2020 at 23:29
  • I believe, if you need to sign some NDA to visit the source, it is offtopic. If it is not entirely opensource, but the source is somehow legally available, then it should be ontopic. Tricky workarounds around opensource (like having an opensource wrapper around a binary object) don't belong here.
    – peterh
    Commented Mar 24, 2020 at 1:35
  • @apsillers My suggestion would be inclusivity in the border cases.
    – peterh
    Commented Mar 24, 2020 at 1:36

2 Answers 2


The canonical source for what's on topic is the help center page "What topics can I ask about here?", which should always reflect the community's current consensus on what's on-topic. In this case, as you've seen already, "How do I ask for a license recommendation?" is also relevant. Currently:

  • Both Free and Open licenses are on-topic in general (and the terms are generally considered to be synonymous for our purposes)
  • When considering license recommendations, only recommendations of open-source (or synonymous - see above) licenses are permitted.

This is the case because if we start allowing recommendations of other types of licenses, we start having to redefine things - what licenses do we allow? Where do we draw the line? Is the topic of the site still the same? Should we change the site scope and help center? Where we are now is a good compromise in terms of having a clear definition, and while it does mean we exclude some cases that are genuinely on the fringes of open-source, it also means that we don't have to have the argument about what's a genuine fringe case and what's actually proprietary masquerading as open source.

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    More clearly and cogently put than I had any hope of managing! Thanks, AOC. The only thing I might add is a clarification that the FSF and OSI definitions of free and open (respectively) are also referred to in the help page, so those are the definitions we use when deciding if something is free and/or open.
    – MadHatter Mod
    Commented Mar 4, 2020 at 20:27
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    I think it is useful to also talk about non-FOSS licensing concepts (e.g. commons clause, ethical source, …) as long as they are discussed from a FOSS point of view. E.g. it's likely fair to say “Open source licenses don't seem to be a good fit for your requirements because you want to do X, which would violate OSD #Y. However, you could consider non-FOSS licenses approaches such as {dual licensing, business source license, commons clause} which has the following consequences: […] E.g. other open source projects will not be able to safely use your software.”
    – amon
    Commented Mar 5, 2020 at 10:49

I have been pointed to How do I ask for a license recommendation? and also found Do we need clarification of “Open Source” in the help page?.

It seems clear from all the discussions of this, on this stack exchange, that the current community decision is that everything 'source available' but not OSI or FSF compliant is explicitly off-topic.

In my own opinion, the strongest argument I've seen for this is that treating these other licenses as if they were 'open' in any good way creates a real risk of a slow creep towards many people using semi-open licenses, which then start clogging up the ability of other projects to properly (i.e. freely - not as in beer...) use them.

I feel that perhaps this this argument could be more often clearly stated, rather than sometimes looking like unexplained dogma, but there it is!

  • "source available" doesn't really say much about the license. I have worked with source-available products, where the license permitted us to read, compile and execute the code and not much else and sometimes even only for a limited time period. Such licenses require a legal professional to interpret and there is no wide community with experience in them, but they would still fall under "source available". Commented Apr 17, 2020 at 15:01
  • True. And there are some that intend to make the source code very liberally available, with some restrictions on what you can do with it (e.g. you can't use it to produce your own, commercial product with substantially the same function). I wanted to understand how much - possibly up to everything - within that range is off topic here.
    – MikeBeaton
    Commented Apr 17, 2020 at 15:32
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    As it is really hard to draw a clear, defensible, line within that range, it has been chosen to disallow all of it. But you already understood that from the answer from @ArtOfCode. Commented Apr 17, 2020 at 15:36
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    If my own understanding, as per my answer above, is correct then it's more that there isn't a safe, defensible line, i.e. none of it is really safe, for reason specified.
    – MikeBeaton
    Commented Apr 18, 2020 at 16:26

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