1

These questions have a number of problems.

  1. They are questions about legal issues, and none of us are lawyers.
  2. They are proxy support questions for the FSF and other such organizations, who should be spending their own hard-earned dollars fielding questions about their opaque agreements.
  3. We are taking money out of the pockets of starving ambulance chas.. er, lawyers.

I claim that:

  1. Without legal expertise, any answers are going to be merely opinions, unless the answerer is reading the text of the license and interpreting it in "plain language," something the OP ought to be able to do himself. We're running an SE site, not Yahoo Answers.

  2. The experts capable of answering these questions properly (licensing lawyers and organizations such as the Free Software Foundation) are not particularly interested in Programmers.SE. We're not "attracting the experts" with these questions.

13

Your arguments 2. and 3. hardly make sense.

Can we put ".net/Java questions off topic" in the FAQ?

  1. (deliberately left blank)

  2. They are proxy support questions for Microsoft/Oracle who should be spending their own hard-earned dollars fielding questions about their tools.

  3. We are taking money out of the pockets of starving .net/Java trainers, book authors, ExpertSexchange etc.

So we are left with 1. No, we are not lawyers, but for many questions, answers already exist, e.g. on FSF's own website, and pointing to those answers (probably written or reviewed by a lawyer) is good enough for many purposes. Considering the many misconceptions existing about e.g. the implications of using a GPL-based product, I think it would be sad not to allow such questions here.

  • Well, we close category 2 questions all the time on Stack Overflow like "When will the next version of the foobar framework be released?" or "Why did Microsoft make this member private?" How would we know that? Ask Microsoft. – Robert Harvey Feb 16 '12 at 15:48
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    Category 3 was just a joke. Mea culpa. – Robert Harvey Feb 16 '12 at 15:49
6

The only point that seems to be one to consider is the first one, since the other points can be applied to nearly any question asked on any Stack Exchange site.

Even though none of us are lawyers, we still deal with software licenses on a regular basis. As an engineer, I'm expected to know if I am able to use an open source tool or project based on its license. For any software developer who contributes to or publishes open source projects, an understanding of the license is also important to know how the code can be reused or redistributed.

If a particular question relies on local or national laws or requires the specific knowledge of a lawyer, I wouldn't have a problem closing it. However, there are many questions that I would expect a software development professional to be able to answer or provide experiences about.

  • 1
    You could make the argument that all such questions require the expertise of a lawyer, when they are not answerable by simply reading the license. – Robert Harvey Feb 16 '12 at 15:51
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    But they don't. If anyone can reasonable expect someone without formal training in law to answer the question, it doesn't require the expertise of a lawyer and is on-topic here. Every employer that I've ever worked for expects software engineers to understand the ramifications of various licenses on the ability to use or deploy existing projects. – Thomas Owens Feb 16 '12 at 15:59
  • So you're saying people can't read licenses? Every answer I've seen to questions like this ends with "But I'm not a lawyer; you should ask one." – Robert Harvey Feb 16 '12 at 16:01
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    No. There are nuances in licenses that one might have questions about. It could be the wording or terminology leads to some kind of confusion, or using certain combinations of licenses on the same project. I've read licenses before that I've needed someone else to read and confirm that I read properly. Now, it's bringing that to the Internet where it won't only help me, but be indexed by search engines and made accessible to other people with the same question. – Thomas Owens Feb 16 '12 at 16:03
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    "But I'm not a lawyer; you should ask one." is just a disclaimer because we are not allowed to give legal advice, or are we? I don't know, since I'm not a lawyer; you should ask one. – user281377 Feb 16 '12 at 21:58
6

The questions are on-topic, and appropriate for understanding by any practicing professional programmer.

Thanks to Richard Stallman and the GNU Manifesto, all programmers have to have a the same level of understanding legal issues of code use that any businessperson needs to have of contracts. If there were a Small Business Stack Exchange, I suspect simple contract questions, purchase order mechanics discussions, and requests for advice about factoring accounts receivable would be on-topic. I also expect many answers would start, "IANAL, but ...". There are certainly topics of discussion at small-business groups all around the USA, even when there are no lawyers in the room.

For programmers, it was not always so - the 1970s and early 1980s were a wonderful time of free sharing of code among practicing programmers, often with the code being explicitly in the public domain. But it is now, as the GPL and every other license it inspired have forced these kinds of decisions upon us. And so we need to have places to discuss them, and the Programmers Stack Exchange is an appropriate venue.

4

The prohibition of giving legal advice relates to US laws regarding practicing law without a license and it seems to have morphed into a social convention for idle chit chat even when people are obviously not pretending to be lawyers or trying to evade professional licensing laws. This is an international website and it would be unfair to people who live in jurisdictions that don't give a flying f about who is professional enough to give advice about software licensing.

  • I am claiming that, without legal expertise, any answers are going to be merely opinions, unless the answerer is reading the text of the license and interpreting it as "plain language," something the OP ought to be able to do himself. We're running an SE site, not Yahoo Answers. – Robert Harvey Feb 16 '12 at 22:23
  • I am also making the claim that the experts capable of answering these questions properly (licensing lawyers and organizations such as the FSF) are not particularly interested in Programmers.SE. We're not "attracting the experts" with these questions. – Robert Harvey Feb 16 '12 at 22:26
  • I've updated my question with these two points. – Robert Harvey Feb 16 '12 at 22:28
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    @Robert Harvey: In many cases, any answers you're going to get are just opinions. At least in the US, there's a lot more unclear interpretations of written law than there is case law to resolve them. – David Thornley Feb 16 '12 at 22:52
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    @DavidThornley: If the law was not subject to interpretation, we wouldn't need lawyers at all. – Robert Harvey Feb 16 '12 at 22:59
3

There is a difference between legal advice and an answer. I have answered many questions based on reading the licenses as well as lot of other literature that discusses them.

If you ask me "Whether can i use Apache licensed code in my commercial project" the correct answer is Yes. This is neither a mere opinion nor does it need that i must be a lawyer.

The point is that understanding of the subject is usually good and often more important than all fine print. Usually lawyer never make you understand! You seek answer for the purpose of understanding but seek lawyer's help to prepare the notice to be submitted to court. And which is why even if i have lawyer at my disposal i would like to ask this question to P.SE about people's view on it.

I believe since we work in software development day in day out; issue about piracy, jail breaking, copy right and licensing, all affect our lives and we must be prepared to learn these subjects pretty much the same way we must learn software methodologies even apart of our programming skills.

It is to enable such learning that we must allow P.SE to permit such questions.

  • Without a legal basis, answers to licensing questions are useless. – Robert Harvey Feb 16 '12 at 22:30
  • @RobertHarvey what do you mean by legal basis? – Dipan Mehta Feb 16 '12 at 22:34
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    "Legal basis" means the answer is supported by specific laws, and legally valid interpretations of those laws. License agreements are legal directives, not opinions, suggestions or even instructions. – Robert Harvey Feb 16 '12 at 22:36
  • @RobertHarvey yes agree. But you dont have to be a lawyer yourself just to know a correct answer of a licensing issue. By that token you will discard Richard Stallman's opinion on GPL simply because he isn't a lawayer by degree education! – Dipan Mehta Feb 16 '12 at 22:49
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    Richard Stallman is not showing up on our site answering licensing questions. That's my whole point. – Robert Harvey Feb 16 '12 at 22:51
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    That way even Martin Fowler doesn't come to P.SE to answer agile questions! You think people who answers career or team management questions are some certified consultants here either? But that doesnt make those answer bad. My only point is, if someone has read the texts, various books, blogs, have sound reasoning in what you are saying there is nothing wrong in answering or questioning. Anyway, if no one has any answer -so be it. Why does legal label become such a taboo? Just because some core set of people are not comfortable with it irrespective of others in community? – Dipan Mehta Feb 16 '12 at 23:00
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    You think people who answers career or team management questions are some certified consultants? -- Ideally, yes. It's the experts you want to attract, not just the armchair quarterbacks. – Robert Harvey Feb 16 '12 at 23:03
  • If a non-lawyer answers one of these licensing questions in a way that is productive, it is because they have encountered the same situation, and had to work through it just like the OP did. Unfortunately, I seldom see such answers on licensing questions. – Robert Harvey Feb 16 '12 at 23:05
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    @RobertHarvey - ideally yes but most are not. what is the definition of expert? I came to know some bit about patents only once i have been through filing one myself. If i share that experience and if that helps i don't think someone should put a full stop there; till i don't know we shouldn't speak. And this principle applies to everythig. Why legal tag raises a lot of eyebrow? That is only because we have inherent perception that most people who are answering here doesn't know shit about it. It is only this bias that makes people think we should stop these questions here. – Dipan Mehta Feb 16 '12 at 23:12
1

Most of the licensing questions I see take one of two forms.

  1. Does [license] allow me to [do something]?
  2. I want my software to have [certain restrictions]. What should my license be?

The problem is that while programmers can answer questions about software licenses that are common knowledge, we cannot provide expertise about the finer points or gray areas of software licenses.

  • There are boundless subjects we address here that we strive to answer with expertise, but can not with authority. What constitutes being an expert? Obviously if you are a clearly recognized figure in or out of the industry, it is a bit easier perhaps at times for very narrow subjects. Although we might not be experts, some things we should be able to answer. Licensing is one area where it should be clear. Can I modify it, can I redistribute it, can I sell it, must I backport or provide any changes made back to the original or immediate source? Special situations are special, no doubt, but – JustinC Jun 8 '13 at 5:25

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