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At one point, software law topics were on-topic, but that was replaced with "software licensing" to differentiate questions about various licensing issues and creating or using software under a specific license from questions about copyright of code, patents on algorithms, and so on. However, people do still ask questions about copyright, trademark, or other legal issues that are best answered by a lawyer and not by software developers.

I think that something should be added to the "and it is not about…" list, as a one line bullet point. My personal suggestion is something along the lines of "copyright, patent, or trademark law" with a footnote that legal questions should be directed toward a lawyer.

In the comments, Yannis Rizos brings up the point that people will still ask off-topic questions. However, I believe that it will be easier to deal with if such topics are specifically identified as on-topic/off-topic as appropriate. This will give the community and the moderators something concrete to point to and say that something is not allowed, leaving no room for contention.

Thoughts?


Examples of recent questions:

  • Can you please provide some recent example questions? I don't think there are too many of these questions, at least not enough to merit a FAQ adjustment. People will keep asking off topic questions, and there isn't much we can do about it (other than closing them). Related discussion: meta.programmers.stackexchange.com/questions/1655/… – yannis Jan 25 '12 at 20:04
  • @YannisRizos I added three links from recent questions, in addition to a paragraph discussing your point about people still asking off-topic questions. The short form is that although you can't stop people from asking them, having a concrete "no, this is off-topic and not appropriate" is better than not having one in instances of ambiguity. – Thomas Owens Jan 25 '12 at 20:27
  • My point was a bit different: Is the group of questions you describe so large, to justify adding a concrete "no, this is off-topic and not appropriate" explanation to the FAQ? I don't think three questions in a month is something we should worry about. There are quite a few instances of ambiguity that could be addressed in the FAQ, what makes this one important enough? – yannis Jan 25 '12 at 20:39
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If these posts are intended as off topic I think they should be listed as such in the FAQ, our FAQ is going to inherently be longer than other sites simply because it seems the definition of Programers has been changed a lot. It would be nicer to say "sorry this is off topic because we tried having questions like this and it didn't work well for the community, and the FAQ was updated accordingly" rather than "this is off topic."

Though I'm not a fan of having programing related questions labeled off topic that don't have an appropriate home elsewhere, but that is another discussion.

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I have only one concern about this: Our FAQ is pretty long as it is.

If you take a quick look at the trilogy and sites of similar scope & size, you'll notice that the site definition part of their FAQ is extremely concise. For example:

I'm not arguing against clearing up ambiguity, and better defining the scope of Programmers, but adding every possible off topic category in the FAQ will eventually make it too long for anyone to bother reading it carefully.

You've identified three questions that are along the lines of "copyright, patent, or trademark law", posted in a span of a month. I don't think it's a large enough group of questions to justify adding any clarifications to the FAQ, or that it will actually stop people from asking those questions; The FAQ has a list of topics that are welcome, and I can't even begin to imagine why the three OPs though their questions would be.

(all) That said, we can simply add a "legal advice" bullet point in the "and it is not about…" list.

P.S. is atop my list of future clean ups.

  • Your last sentence is exactly what I'm asking for: a simple bullet point in the "is not about" list to say that we do not provide legal advice. Perhaps I should make the original post more clear, but yeah, the FAQ is kind of long, but it's also because Programmers covers a huge topic area. – Thomas Owens Jan 25 '12 at 22:03
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    @ThomasOwens I kinda guessed that was what you meant, but you should be a bit more specific (and you should revise the question, now that we clarified it). Still I wouldn't have missed the chance to nag about how long our FAQ is :) – yannis Jan 25 '12 at 22:09
  • I wonder if it's possible to clean up the FAQ...can we trim that beast down? That should probably be the next discussion. Sure, tag clean ups are important, but the FAQ is far more visible. That's another discussion, though. Editing the original post now. – Thomas Owens Jan 25 '12 at 22:14
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    @ThomasOwens Moderators can edit parts of the faq, those that are specific to the site - community consensus is essential of course. I think people continuously posting career advice questions makes cleaning up [career] a little bit more important. The topic is explicitly discouraged in the FAQ, so I'd say an abundance of open questions is more visible than the FAQ. But we'll discuss that when time comes. – yannis Jan 25 '12 at 22:23
  • I'd agree that there are tags that are more visible than others and perhaps more visible than the FAQ, such as the jobs/careers tag and the legal tag, than the FAQ. But as a general rule, I tend to think of the FAQ and Meta as being "the one guiding light" to dictate future actions, rather than the current state of the tagging (if that makes sense). – Thomas Owens Jan 25 '12 at 22:29
  • @ThomasOwens I introduced a friend of mine to the network earlier today, more specifically Photography and Linguistics. She went through their front page, then the top voted questions, tags etc. She never bothered with the FAQ until I pointed it out, and if you think of it, it's a small link at the largely uninteresting header. She did notice it again when posting her first question, of course, but at that point she already had two hours of exploring questions, and every now and then saying "yeap, I would have asked something similar" - mostly on closed ones :) – yannis Jan 25 '12 at 22:36
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    @ThomasOwens (cont...) So, I really don't know! It would make for a very interesting Meta discussion, especially if we can get a few newer users to share their experiences on getting to know the site. And a topic I would write about in our blog, if we ever manage to get one. – yannis Jan 25 '12 at 22:37
  • Interesting insight. The first thing I do when I visit a new SE site is read their FAQ to make sure what I want to ask about is on-topic, and then I search for similar questions to see (1) if it's been asked already and (2) how specific I need to make my question to be both acceptable and useful. I suppose that's a perfectly valid way to learn information and get usage instructions, though. – Thomas Owens Jan 25 '12 at 22:38
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    @ThomasOwens Well me too, but both of us had plenty of experience with Stack Overflow before joining other sites. It's a completely different experience for someone first meets the network now, especially in one of the newer sites. – yannis Jan 25 '12 at 22:42
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Personally I think some of those questions are fine for the site.

The reason is that most developers will face a legal question at some point in their career, and although the obvious answer is to get legal advice, a lot of people don't think of doing that right away. I know I didn't.

So my opinion would be to leave the good questions related to legal programming issues open or closed as duplicates to a better question that asks the same thing, and to close the poor quality or extremely localized ones.

I feel if the same question about software development is asked by enough programmers, a good copy of that question should be left open with good answers. Don't try to stop the question from getting asked altogether because it won't happen and it seems to contradict what Programmers.SE stands for - to answer general questions about software development, even if that answer is to go seek legal advice.

Edit

Here are some of the legal questions I have found quite interesting on this site:

Is it legal to recreate/opensource a program that you previously coded for another company

Do I really need a disclaimer for free software?

Should I accept to write unsecure code if my employer requests me to do so?

There were a few more that I can't find.

One was about building in some kind of kill switch for an application that the user could trigger if they didn't get paid. Its the sort of thing I can see freelance programmers asking about, and there were some good answers to it.

And another was about who owns code a developer creates in their spare time if the code was created outside of working ours, but used for work projects (it's not the one linked in the original question, but similar)

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    Answering "go see a lawyer" is not an answer. If an individual, trained and professionally practicing software development, can not be expected to know the answer to the question, it doesn't belong here. – Thomas Owens Jan 26 '12 at 14:21
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    @ThomasOwens I'm afraid I disagree. I've learned quite a bit from some of the good legal questions I've seen on this site. Usually the good answers consist of someone outlining what they would do or have done in that situation, and ending the answer by saying they would suggest getting legal advice to be sure that nothing is overlooked. – Rachel Jan 26 '12 at 14:28
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    There are good legal questions here. Those that are about licensing software. For example, I think this question is really good. I would expect a professional software developer to understand software licensing and how it impacts the use of code. Questions about legal topics other than software licenses are already off-topic - the point here isn't to debate that, but to add a statement to the FAQ to clearly state that we do not provide legal advice and these questions don't belong. – Thomas Owens Jan 26 '12 at 14:36
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    @ThomasOwens I can see that, although often those questions come from people who don't understand that they should be seeking legal advice, not programming advice. I was thinking a few good on-topic questions that come up when searching would help filter out the bad legal questions. And you probably shouldn't have some good on-topic legal questions which you direct people to if you outlaw it in the FAQ. Don't forget, not everyone who uses this site is a professional developer (I would actually be very interested in seeing statistics on what P.SE users roles are in the programming world) – Rachel Jan 26 '12 at 14:43
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    although often those questions come from people who don't understand that they should be seeking legal advice Then the appropriate response should be to leave a comment saying that they should consult a lawyer, not a software development professional and vote to close as off-topic. To me, an answer is the sharing of professional opinions and advice and in very few cases can one here provide valid professional opinions and advice in legal matters. – Thomas Owens Jan 26 '12 at 14:56
  • not everyone who uses this site is a professional developer True. My mistake - I should have said software development professional. We have software architects, software project managers, software process engineers, and so on. The underlying thread is that we know software, and not the law. I would be curious to know the breakdown as well... – Thomas Owens Jan 26 '12 at 14:57
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    I guess my opinion is that if the same question about software development is asked by enough programmers, a good copy of that question should be left open with good answers. Don't try to stop the question from getting asked altogether because it won't happen and it seems to contradict what Programmers.SE stands for. – Rachel Jan 26 '12 at 15:01
  • I agree with Rachel. As long as you don't go asking about every legal detail and are just getting some info I bet there are enough programmers here who would have had faced a similar problem before and may be able to share their 2 cents. That said, this statement was not issued by a legally qualified attorney and does not in any way, shape, or form constitute a legal opinion. Any indications to the contrary were not implied by the author. – Apoorv Khurasia Oct 21 '12 at 10:21
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Laws affect the way we work and how we build software. Much of our software has a global impact, but different jurisdictions have different laws and these laws change significantly every few years. Programmers are generally not involved in the shaping of those laws or the defining cases where those laws are tested in court. Meanwhile, industry giants and patent trolls are building arsenals of patents and copyrights and increasingly suing each other over them.

A question was asked today, Do software copyrights apply to Source Code or Binary Code? that someone responded to (before it was closed) in a way that taught me something new. I had been so focused on the copyright protection for source code and patents for business processes that I had never considered whether the binary object-code had different legal protection (it can actually be copyrighted in the US without the source code, with some provisions).

Every time I talk about the GPL v2 with a dozen people, one boldly asserts something completely untrue about it. I confess that I find the v3 language almost impenetrable. I attended a talk at the South East Linux Fest this year where the speaker gave an excellent history of v3 before stating that it was impossible to predict how the details were going to be interpreted by courts in different jurisdictions!

I feel strongly that someone needs to raise our collective consciousness of these issues in a positive way. If we aren't aware of the laws governing what we do, how can we influence them?

The FSF brings up important issues, but they are strongly and sometimes subtly biased toward making more people write more GPL code more often. I have heard lawyers complain that they are too-often voted down for posting sound legal advice on groklaw or slashdot. This site ("Progrmmers") could fulfill part of this need, but as it stands, legal questions, even interesting ones, are quickly closed.

Finally, legal advice is not the same as legal discussion. I completely understand why Programmers would want to avoid and even ban the former, but do not see any reason to suppress the latter, so long as it has to do with software.

  • Two people have voted me down with no comment. I'm curious if I should have posted this somewhere else, or if I'm saying something demonstrably untrue, or if people are just voting down because they disagree with my opinion, or if there is some other reason. I had the same question about Rachael's post above. – GlenPeterson Oct 15 '12 at 14:03
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    At this point, I would suspect it's because people disagree with you but don't have a good way to refute your points. This post is almost a year old (about 10 months now), and has been the definition of the policy when it comes to legal advice posts on Programmers. If you want to propose a change to something that's so old, it should probably be brought up in a new question, which would make it easier for people to respond to your points. – Thomas Owens Oct 15 '12 at 14:38
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    Your answer doesn't directly answer the question as it was posed, so that could explain some of the downvotes. Meta questions tend to be more freely voted up | down as a way of reflecting the viewer agreeing | disagreeing with the answer. Since meta votes don't count for / against reputation they tend to be slung around more quickly, IMO. I agree with what you're indirectly saying though - there is value in the questions despite the fact that some really should be answered with "go see a lawyer." – GlenH7 Oct 15 '12 at 15:08

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