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I know legal issues are in the faq as on-topic but I could not find an existing discussion of it.

Do legal questions such as the iPhone issue or non-paying customer question really have a place here? I think that providing amateur legal advice (even if it is good) is a disservice to the community and it would be better if we were to close these as off-topic. It seems these topics always end up with a lot of meta-discussion in the comments directly related to the dubious nature of internet legal advice, caveats etc.

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    @Yannis Rizos yes but I do not think all these questions would be considered on-topic there either - really I do not think there is any place at all for community based personal legal advice. General questions about the impact of legal actions I think are on topic. The iPhone question could probably be fixed by taking the "what should I do?" part of it out and just asking for opinions on the meaning of these new actions. – Jeremy Jun 1 '11 at 15:46
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    Related issue on Meta Stack Overflow (our sister site for network-wide issues): “consult your lawyer” answers – user8 Jun 1 '11 at 16:34
  • Possible duplicate of Custom Close Reason Updates – gnat Oct 13 '16 at 16:32
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To tackle the relatively easy part of your question first, if you see a comment chain devolving into an extended discussion that does nothing to improve the post to which it is attached, flag the post for moderator review. Extended discussion, on any question, is discouraged and we will actively clean those up.

Regarding legal questions, it's really a two parter:

  • Are all legal questions ill-served by being asked here?
  • If not, is there a certain kind of legal question that's ill-served here?

To the first question, I don't think so. The Stack Exchange system can provide great answers, and there is a certain amount of community vetting in the form of voting, comments, and counter-answers, but it requires common sense.

If, for example, I told you that the best practice for implementing scrum in your job was to submit TPS reports daily that contain nothing but 14 pages of the letter 'K', I would hope you wouldn't do that even if my answer was the top-voted.

In the context of legal questions, common sense is always, always consult a lawyer. Asking a site devoted to non-lawyers who do not have an attorney-client relationship for definitive legal advice is obviously dangerous.

But that's not to say you can't ask about legal issues: it's akin to asking a colleague or a friend about their experiences in a similar situation.

Take the non-paying customer question, for instance: you might ask that question of a colleague, who might say something like "Obviously get a lawyer, but when that happened to me, this is what worked." That's the type of answer we want on Programmers.SE.

To the second question, the highly-specific legal question that can only be answered by a lawyer, like a question about being sued and asking for a legal interpretation for a defense, would be off-topic. We're not lawyers: we can't answer those.

I think there is always going to be a fine line between what constitutes regular, professional advice (on-topic) and what constitutes personal legal advice (off-topic). The standard should be, "would a reasonable person consider the question to be asking for personal legal advice?" If so, it's a candidate for closure.

One footnote regarding common sense: there are askers who appear to have the wrong set of expectations when asking legal questions, and both of the questions you listed appear to have this problem. A person who appears to think Programmers.SE substitutes a lawyer needs to be educated that he cannot use the answers given as a way to circumvent legal council.

To this end, it's similar to questions on Stack Overflow where someone asks how to do something insane, and the only correct answer is "Don't do that. Do X instead."

But the purpose of the Stack Exchange network is to build up questions and answers that can help others, not just the asker. So a misguided asker isn't reason enough to close a question.

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    People who are not lawyers cannot be relied on to know which questions they can and cannot answer competently. Just because something "worked" doesn't mean it is legally defensible. Most people seem to ignore the "consult a lawyer" part as if its the small print on a cereal box contest. I think I can be even more specific though if I say my main concern is people requesting personal legal advice - e.g. what action they should take in their situation. – Jeremy Jun 1 '11 at 18:22
  • @Jeremy in the case where the person is requesting personal legal advice, they should be closed and/or flagged for moderator review. It's always going to be a fine line as to what constitutes personal legal advice and what constitutes run-of-the-mill job advice: we may need to invoke a form of the Miller test for all legal questions: would a reasonable person interpret it to be requesting legal advice? If so, it should be closed. – user8 Jun 1 '11 at 20:16
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    I don't really agree with this. What value can any answer have when it is, or needs to be, followed up with "... but IANAL"? The answerer has basically said "Here's my idea or what I did, but it could be totally wrong based on your circumstances, location, etc. Only a lawyer will truly know." IMO, any legal answer, here, is devalued the instant it is answered by someone who is not a legal professional. – Steven Evers Jun 1 '11 at 21:19
  • @SnOrfus: Partly there are things we can suggest as practical measures, and partly we can suggest specific issues that may be problematic and should be brought up in the meeting with the lawyer. There are areas of law that are pretty clear and mostly universal. These inevitably merge smoothly into legally shady areas where a lawyer is necessary, but there's still much that can be done avoiding those areas. – David Thornley Jun 3 '11 at 17:31
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I don't think the wholesale discouraging of such questions would be productive. There are a number of topics, for instance free software licenses, where people here do have considerable knowledge to share.

Like it or not - licenses, patents, copyright and trademarks are in fact a part of many of our professional lives. Many of us have, if nothing worse, made mistakes that could help someone else. Such questions are surely on topic. A lot of people learned about organizations like the Software Freedom Law Center / Software Freedom Conservancy from reading questions here. Those are valuable resources.

I would hope that people are wise enough to consult with an attorney for legal advice. Asking if the new BSD license is compatible with version 3 of the GPL is not asking for legal advice, that's asking for information that anyone working in open source should know.

Not everything is so cut and dry, but I'd hate to alienate a possible answer like this:

I was in this situation and I live close to you. I ended up contacting an attorney and this is what we did, it cost me a fortune and I never did get the resolution I was after. I recommend talking to your lawyer, but my experience was dreadful, I wish now I had just let it go.

That's not sharing legal advice, that's sharing your first hand experience from being in a very similar situation.

We can't guarantee common sense in all users, but I think we should be able to assume that some exists for the sake of keeping the site rolling productively.

  • I agree on licensing I would expect to find good expertise here. Is it not important, if the topic should be one in which programmers are a particularly relevant group of people to query? I thought that was a scoping principal. So I can see questions related to licensing or that might typically arise in someone doing 1099 work. – Jeremy Jun 2 '11 at 21:21
  • @Jeremy - I'm just at a loss to define a clear cut difference (for the purposes of the FAQ). – Tim Post Jun 2 '11 at 22:04
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    Questions about license, copyright and patents can be directly related to programming; proper understanding of these things may affect choice of libraries, platforms or even projects. "My customer didn't pay me!" isn't directly related to programming. Every service business can face this issue and it isn't something programmers would be expected to be particularly knowledgeable about resolving. – Jeremy Jun 3 '11 at 0:41
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My opinion: No. They don'y have a place here.

If any answer is, or should be, followed up with "... but you need to speak to a lawyer" then the answer is immediately irrelevant. A lawyer, who knows the situation/location (which potentially already makes them too localized as questions) could easily contradict everything in the answer.

All someone is saying is "I think [this], but I'm not a lawyer, so I don't actually know." which is not an answer. At best it's a hypothesis based on experience. At worst, it's bad advice that "sounds right". If there's anything that I've learned about the law, it's that things that sound right, or should be right, or seem to be common sense... are rarely any of those things in a room full of lawyers.

Now, does that mean that things like software licensing are off topic in my view? No. Those are not. The line is obviously blurry, but even then most responsible companies still end up needing to consult a lawyer when it comes to licensing.

IMO: relate them to questions about hardware on this site. Sure we're programmers, so lots of us know, and are expected to know, about hardware issues. Harware cabn also be very related to programming... but it's off topic. The only downside is that we don't have a legal.stackexchange.com where we do have a serverfault and superuser.

  • That would be like declaring all performance questions off-topic, since they tend to end "but you need to benchmark those alternatives to be sure". Aside from the obvious stuff ("don't use bubble sort on that 100,000-member table"), I'm down to suggesting things to consider ("try to avoid cache misses"), and usually wind up suggesting profiling and timing. Similarly, I know that some things are legal ("can I incorporate this Boost-licensed stuff in my GPL project"?), some are illegal, and that otherwise you consult a lawyer, and be sure to consider this stuff. – David Thornley Jun 3 '11 at 18:31
  • @David: Point well made, but the metaphor doesn't fit. Benchmarking can be done, and is done, by developers, so in that scenario the users of this site are the potential specialists. Likewise, I did mention that licensing would be considered off topic but it's a very slippery slope to potentially dangerous questions/answers. – Steven Evers Jun 3 '11 at 20:09
  • @David: I don't have an answer here, and this is my opinion. I think the crux of my position is on the potential damage that a wrong answer can do. Maybe that should be the criteria of what should be allowed? – Steven Evers Jun 3 '11 at 20:10

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