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I recently had an idea for a "threshold conditional" software license that works like this:

  • Any person/entity can purchase a license and gain the unconditional right to use the software any way they want.
  • The software is also unconditionally open for non-commercial uses, much like the creative commons NC concept.
  • The software is then conditionally open to everyone else for any use, but only if the total amount of support given to the project meets a certain threshold.

For example, a project could set their "support threshold" at something like $1000 a month, and then if the community of supporters collectively pledged enough to match that threshold then the software could be used by anyone for any purpose. However if at any point support fell below that threshold then only the actual supporters and non-commercial users would not be in violation of the license.

You can think of this idea as a licensing-based twist of sponsorware or an "ongoing" assurance contract.

Is this kind of dynamic even possible to construct within US copyright law? Or in any global copyright law? Are there any specific laws or precedents that seem they would make this impossible?

The only possible barrier I can find is privity of contract, but it seems clear to me that wouldn't be a problem. In a license like this all parties affected by the terms would have taken some voluntary action to be bound by it (by using the software).


Aside: I'm actually not sure I'm comfortable with the idea of a license like this. I'm not sure this type of license would be productive or helpful or accepted, I'm just extremely curious if it's even possible. Please don't comment regarding your feelings or predictions of the concept's success.

If you're interested in a broader discussion of why a license like this would even be considered, or whether it would be a good idea, this post discusses those larger questions (link to my own unmonetized blog, no self-promotion intended, mods please tell me if even this self-link is unacceptable and I'll remove it).

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    If the jurisdiction allows a license to be revoked at will by the owner, that would allow conditional revocation based on anything, including third-party action. law.stackexchange.com/questions/832/…
    – Martheen
    Oct 28, 2023 at 1:43
  • This seems like it would make an acceptable full answer :)
    – blaineh
    Oct 29, 2023 at 20:12

2 Answers 2

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As confirmed in the comment, if the jurisdiction allows the owner to specify that the license can be revoked at will, this allows them to revoke the license without any base on the licensee performance. The license itself must be carefully constructed to avoid giving the licensee any additional rights outside directly supporting the project. Explicitly retaining the at-will revocation will also help avoid disputes.

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This isn't a problem per se, because the action is conditional on the action of everyone else, not others. Specifically, any individual user X could ensure that the "support threshold" is met by paying $1000. Now, the fact that others have also contributed will mean that user X may not have to pay $1000 every month. In fact, some months X might not have to pay at all. But X knows that there is a hard cap which they'll need to pay.

The main challenge is the wording exactly how and when the license will expire when the $1000 isn't paid.

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