I am having trouble getting to grips with Programmers despite having had good success on SO. My questions here keep getting closed. By my reading of the FAQ, my questions are good and on topic but I'm starting to realise that there are also some unwritten rules.

For example, from the FAQ:

What kind of questions can I ask here?

Programmers — Stack Exchange is a site for professional programmers who are interested in getting expert answers on conceptual questions about software development. If you have a question about...


software licensing

So why is this question, about software licensing, closed as off topic?


This is a well scoped question that is answerable. OK, it might not be easy to answer but I've asked plenty on SO that just sit unanswered because no-one knows the answer.

So my question to meta: does the FAQ represent the full reality of this site?

  • 2
    You are asking for legal advice, the core question is about patents, not software licensing, and simply put we are not lawyers. You personally might not be interested in legal advice, but the question can only be adequately answered by a lawyer.
    – yannis
    Commented Dec 6, 2012 at 15:38
  • 2
    @Yannis Show me a question about software licensing that is not best answered by a lawyer. Copyright and patents are the two principles behind all software licenses and to answer a question about licenses you really need to be aware of both. Suggest striking "software licensing" from the FAQ list of acceptable topics. Anyway, what is wrong with lawyers answering such questions if they want to - are they not welcome here?
    – paperjam
    Commented Dec 6, 2012 at 15:57
  • While lawyers are welcome here, in several (if not most) jurisdictions it's actually illegal for them to be answering legal questions on the internet.
    – yannis
    Commented Dec 6, 2012 at 15:59
  • 1
    @paperjam Although lawyers are the most experienced and well-versed in this area, I know that it's a formal part of my job to be able to evaluate if I can use a software package based on its license. When I'm releasing an open-source project (which may overlap with freelancing and business concerns), I may need to choose an appropriate license. Because these aren't unreasonable demands of a software development professional, they are on-topic here.
    – Thomas Owens Mod
    Commented Dec 6, 2012 at 16:03
  • 2
    My last attempt to clarify the FAQ was met with downvotes, but you can check it out if you want. I still think it more accurately represents the scope of the site, as I think questions on the site are better defined as on-topic by the type of answer they need, not just by the subject matter of the question :)
    – Rachel
    Commented Dec 6, 2012 at 16:58

3 Answers 3


I think that there are some problems with the FAQ, some things that are ambiguous, some examples being a need for more precise definitions for "freelancing and business concerns" and "software engineering" in the list of on-topic. However, this is just nitpicking over a few phrases. Generally, the FAQ makes it very clear what's on-topic, at least for an initial pass of a question:

Programmers — Stack Exchange is a site for professional programmers who are interested in getting expert answers on conceptual questions about software development

The target audience of this site is a professional in the field of software development - programmer, tester, project manager, software team leader, architect, process improvement specialist, and so on. In order to be on-topic, questions are expected to draw on some combination of the education and experiences that these types of people would typically have. The rest of the on-topic definition provides examples of things that are on-topic or off-topic, and if there is a suitable site for another topic, what that site is.

Your question does fall into one of the buckets that is considered on-topic here, specifically software licensing. However, what you're asking for is beyond the experiences of professionals in software development. It's well within scope for people in this profession to need to understand the various software licenses and how they impact the use of a project under that license. It's also well within scope to understand how to choose a software license that meets particular needs, of one exists. However, the creation of a new software license (especially one that is valid and would hold up) is generally beyond the scope of the experiences and education of software professionals.

The best rule of thumb would be to ask what type of experience or education you would need to answer a question. If you need the specific education and experience of a software developer, it passes that check and it might be on-topic (assuming it's a constructive question that doesn't fall into the "do not ask" category).

  • Makes sense, but might also read: "don't ask questions that are too difficult". This is a reasonable rule but it is subjective: who is the judge of whether a question is within the scope of software professionals? I disagree that the right action is to close difficult questions - where would SO be if they did that? Also I am now minded not to bother with Programmers any more because it can't answer my questions as an experienced programmer.
    – paperjam
    Commented Dec 6, 2012 at 15:50
  • 4
    @paperjam This has nothing to do with difficulty. It has to do with who is best suited to answer a question. In the education that a typical professional software developer has, do they learn about how to create a new software license? In the typical career of a software development professional, do they create new licenses? The answer to both appears to be "no", making this particular question off-topic. This is typically done by lawyers. Note that this question was closed by 5 members of the community - 5 professional software developers of various backgrounds - who felt it was off-topic.
    – Thomas Owens Mod
    Commented Dec 6, 2012 at 15:56
  • 2
    the FAQ says nothing about who is suited to answer questions, just about the audience that might be interested. Anyway the answer to my question might have been "Use Banana Public License, it does that" and any programmer might have come up with that.
    – paperjam
    Commented Dec 6, 2012 at 16:11
  • 5
    @paperjam Your question is specifically about evaluating your proposed license. If it was more about finding an existing license that had certain specific requirements, then I don't think it would have been closed. The answers would have either identified one or more licenses that meet your criteria or state that no such license exists and you should consult a lawyer to create one. However, the primary question you ask is about your license - we can't objectively evaluate the goodness or validity of your license because that's not what we're experienced in doing.
    – Thomas Owens Mod
    Commented Dec 6, 2012 at 16:18
  • @paperjam "who is suited to answer questions" - FAQ says "expert answers", requiring that level from answerers. Combined with the fact that FAQ limits questions to those about software dev, one would likely expect P.SE answerers to be experts in, well, development (not in legal stuff, not in cooking, maybe not even in software quality assurance). Experts tend to hang around questions within their area of expertise
    – gnat
    Commented Dec 6, 2012 at 16:35
  • @ThomasOwens agreed. But posting that as example (and asking if it made sense) was the clearest way to ask the question.
    – paperjam
    Commented Dec 6, 2012 at 16:44
  • 3
    I would agree with your first paragraph up to the last sentence. I really enjoy it here, but I think the FAQ is pretty terrible here. The only real way to learn the scope of this place is to participate, see questions get closed etc over time you get a feel for it (sometimes I can tell anyway, I still have troubles). That said, the FAQ is really no help except for broad obvious things like "No career advice", and the broad things aren't the majority of closures here, it's more gray than that. Commented Dec 6, 2012 at 18:02

Yes, the FAQ absolutely represents the reality of the site. It however does not represent the whole reality of the site.

The FAQ gives broad statements about black and white obvious things, but the reality of the site has a lot of grey(gray? I can never remember..) area between those black and white statements which are not well detailed in the FAQ. The only way to learn how those gray areas play out is through participation in the site. Your question landed in the enormous grey(I'll just switch back and forth so I'm sometimes right) area and the community has decided to draw the border just on the other side of your question.

My suggestion is to do your best to divine the spirit of the FAQ from what it says and then before posting questions to avoid running into a question ban, try and find any similar (not necessarily same) questions to see if they've been closed or why etc.

  • Maybe, it is the committee of moderators that should try to divine the actual needs of the users of this forum. If likely-to-be-closed questions keep on popping up everywhere (as it is clearly the case here) then, maybe, it is the FAQ (that is: the forum policy) that it is wrong (too restrictive), not the community of forum members. Or, in a more constructive way: maybe this forum needs some more tag (or even a new parallel forum) to accomodate all of the needs of its users. Commented Dec 7, 2012 at 7:18
  • 3
    gray|grey can be bothersome. Try thinking of 'a' for America, and 'e' for England.
    – Cyclops
    Commented Dec 7, 2012 at 12:24

I'll probably get downvoted for this, but No I don't think our FAQ represents the full reality of the site

Here are some of my reasons why I think that:

  • It defines on-topic based on the subject matter of the question only, while I feel our on-topic definition should also specify the type of answer required since the topic (conceptual software development) is so broad, and parts of it are off-topic for the site based on the type of answer they need.

    Existing proposal: Update our FAQ to improve the on-topic definition

  • There is no clarification about how Programmers differs from StackOverflow in the FAQ. This is one of the most frequently asked questions about Programmers, and I think having something in there would help reduce the number of code help questions we get that should be asked on SO.

    Existing proposal: Can something highlighting the difference between Programmers and SO be added to the FAQ?

  • Because of the number of broad recommendation requests we get, I would like to see something specifically stating that broad recommendation questions are off-topic, and a link to a meta post explaining why.

    Existing proposal: Adding the definition of a "shopping list/request" to the FAQ

  • I find the first FAQ line very misleading when combined with the current site name and design. It is:

    Programmers — Stack Exchange is a site for professional programmers who are interested in getting expert answers on conceptual questions about software development.

    I think it's too easy to mistakenly think this line is saying the site is "for professional programmers [who are interested in getting expert answers on conceptual questions about software development]", instead of a site "for getting expert answers to conceptual questions about software development by professional programmers".

    Existing proposal: Programmers tag line is misleading. Can we rephrase it?

I know our FAQ covers a lot, and you might find some parts of the puzzle hidden in the wall of text somewhere, however I think it's missing some key pieces clarifying what types of questions are allowed here, and it could definitely use an update to make it shorter and easier to read/understand.

  • The very fact @Rachel was downvoted for this well-constructed and positive answer to my question makes me want to steer well clear of programmers in the future.
    – paperjam
    Commented Dec 7, 2012 at 15:48
  • 2
    @paperjam - downvoting in Meta isn't the same as the main site. It just means that someone doesn't agree with Rachel.
    – Walter
    Commented Dec 7, 2012 at 16:52
  • 3
    @paperjam there is a lot of history in this answer you probably aren't aware of
    – Ryathal
    Commented Dec 7, 2012 at 18:15
  • @paperjam Thanks, however many users here on meta disagree with some of the reasons I wrote, and votes on meta are often be used to express agreement/disagreement instead of good/bad answer. My answer is actually at +4/-3, while the other two answers are currently at +5/0 and +3/0. I wish SE would show both up and down votes on meta because of this, as I think many visiting non-meta users don't understand that, and post votes can be quite skewed as a result.
    – Rachel
    Commented Dec 10, 2012 at 16:56
  • Well, if I hover the up/down icons, I'm told "answer is useful" / "answer is not useful". Another case where reality doesn't match documentation.
    – paperjam
    Commented Dec 10, 2012 at 21:24
  • @paperjam There's actually a request on MSO asking to change the tooltips, but it's been officially denied by SE. Jeff's answer explains why, but a lot of people disagree with that explanation so it has a lot of downvotes. It's correct though, and I agree with it. Meta votes were only meant to mean agreement/disagreement for proposals to change something or feature requests, but many users use them to indicate agreement/disagreement on any post, regardless of if its proposing anything or not.
    – Rachel
    Commented Dec 11, 2012 at 17:39

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