I asked this this question. It was put on hold by Bart van Ingen Schenau, who kindly and patiently explained that he rejected the question because of a community consensus that programmers cannot authoritatively answer questions involving the legal topic at hand (copyright law).

I have searched Programmers Meta, and I find no evidence of such a consensus. To the contrary, I find a pronounced lack of consensus. Relevant posts seem to be What types of legal questions are on-topic here?, Are software law questions off-topic here?, and “consult your lawyer” answers. Among those discussions, there seems to be a contingent arguing that programmers are qualified to answer no legal questions; a contingent arguing that programmers can answer only those legal questions intimately related to programming; a contingent arguing that programmers can answer a wide range of legal topics as long as "common sense" is applied to the interpretation of the answers; and a contingent arguing that programmers may potentially be able to answer any legal question. No contingent clearly dominates the others.

As a newcomer browsing the documented record, my perception is that the community is very far from a consensus on this matter. Nevertheless, community consensus was cited in Mr. Schenau's explanation for the rejection of my question. The apparent implication is that a non-existent community standard is being used to justify the rejection of questions on Programmers Stack Exchange.

I come to Meta (at Mr. Schenau's suggestion) in search of clarity. Does there exist a consensus on programmers' inability to answer questions on copyright law sufficient to justify the rejection of questions on that topic?


My question is attracting answers which are not quite on-point, so I think it would help if I elaborate.

I believe the help center guidelines are out-of-sync with community standards, especially when it comes to deciding whether or not legal questions are off-topic. I suspect what has happened is that the community has formed a shared opinion over time, but hasn't kept the guidelines up-to-date. That's okay -- We can fix it by establishing what the community standards are, then updating the guidelines to reflect them.

Let's start with the one question where I've been told there is a consensus: Does everyone agree that programmers cannot authoritatively answer questions of copyright law? If yes, then let's edit the guidelines to say that copyright questions are off-topic for that reason. If no, then let's tell people to stop citing that as a reason for closing questions.

It seems likely that follow-up questions will be necessary. Doc Brown says we shouldn't encourage legal advice because it may be illegal to do so, or carry too much responsibility. Maybe we should look for a consensus on that point and, if we find one, write that into the guidelines. Telastyn suggests that copyright questions are too specific to be useful. Perhaps the community agrees with that, and it should be written into the guidelines. Snowman suggests that legal answers carry too big a risk of leading to bad decisions. Etc. Etc.

But let's take things one step at a time. The question on the table is whether or not we agree that programmers are incapable of giving authoritative answers to copyright questions. Yes or no?


Thanks to everyone who answered or commented on this question. Here is a summary of what I learned:

1) Some respondents suggest that my question is based on a misconception. I had believed that Programmers Stack Exchange first establishes a consensus on which topics should be allowed, then writes those criteria into the help center guidelines, then instructs its moderators to close only those questions which fail to meet the guidelines. (Let's call this System A.) However, Eric King, Walter Mitty, and Rob Y suggest that Programmers Stack Exchange doesn't work this way. Instead, moderators vote to close and reopen questions at their own discretion, and the balance of votes, not the help center guidelines, determines what is on-topic or off-topic. Consensus doesn't play a formal role in the process, but you can infer consensus by looking at which questions remain closed and which remain open. (Let's call this System B.) I felt this was too big a concept to address properly in the comments here, so I started a new question to discuss it. Thank you to Eric, Walter, and Rob for opening my eyes to System B. It explains a lot of what I see on PSE, and it helps me to understand the replies to my question. If Stack Exchange does, in fact, work along the lines of System B, then my original question and my earlier edit in which I suggest that we bring the help center guidelines up-to-date with community standards are misguided; the site simply doesn't work the way I expected.

2) Some respondents assert that the help center guidelines prohibit most legal questions through their prohibition on legal assistance. Snowman says that anything which crosses the line beyond "how the license works" is "explicitly off-topic per the help center". MichaelT says "The help center already has 'legal advice' in there as off topic" and suggests that this implicitly extends to "interpretations". Robert Harvey says "Legal interpretation, advice, and assistance are all the same thing." My conclusion is that some moderators believe the help center contains a broad prohibition on legal questions, and may use it to justify the closure of any question with a legal aspect.

3) Several respondents went beyond answering whether or not there is a consensus on whether programmers can authoritatively answer questions of copyright law, and tried to explain why programmers cannot or should not answer legal questions in general. The diversity of these replies convinces me that there is no doctrine on the subject, but rather a bunch of individual theories.

  • possible duplicate of What is the difference between software licensing and copyright
    – gnat
    Commented Dec 22, 2014 at 10:40
  • 4
    As an aside, it doesn't require a "community consensus" to close a question... It only requires 5 votes. Conversely, it only requires 5 votes to reopen a question. Whether a community consensus exists at all, and what it is at any particular point in time, is best expressed by which questions are closed and left closed.
    – Eric King
    Commented Dec 23, 2014 at 16:27
  • 3
    You are right, there is no consensus. Personally, I will vote to close any license question where the question or answer migrates over the line from "how the license works" to "legal advice," the latter of which is explicitly off-topic per the help center. Unfortunately the line between the two is very thin, and many people (myself included) tend to err on the side of caution. While it is unlikely that "Mr. Snowman" will be compelled to testify in any court due to comments here, I would hate for anyone to make a bad decision based on what they read on the internet.
    – user22815
    Commented Dec 23, 2014 at 20:25
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    @eric-king, With respect, I think you've got it backward. First, you get consensus. Then you write the consensus into the help center guidelines. Then you vote to close only those questions which fail to meet the guidelines. If you are closing questions at your own discretion and assuming that the balance of close votes and reopen votes are a mechanism for establishing consensus, then I believe you are violating the site procedures.
    – T.C.
    Commented Dec 24, 2014 at 0:56
  • @snowman, It sounds like you're saying there is a consensus that programmers can answer "how the license works", but not give "legal advice". That seems like an answer to my question. Would you care to propose it as a formal answer?
    – T.C.
    Commented Dec 24, 2014 at 1:01
  • 2
    Look at it this way: any legal advice you get on this site will be unreliable, as practitioners could lose their license for providing it (and so presumably will not do so). There's a reason for that - advice based on limited facts can be extremely dangerous if followed. We shouldn't be a party to that.
    – sapi
    Commented Dec 24, 2014 at 10:18
  • 1
    @T.C.My point is, you come here asking if there is a consensus, expecting a few folks to give you their opinion of what the consensus is, when you already have tangible proof in the form of question closure. The "first you get consensus" part is what I'm saying happens through the vote-to-close process. That is how PSE finds the consensus.
    – Eric King
    Commented Dec 24, 2014 at 14:58
  • @T.C. Thomas Owens answered basically the same thing, I just explained it a little more.
    – user22815
    Commented Dec 24, 2014 at 15:37
  • 1
    @eric-king, I do not have tangible proof in the form of question closure. It is possible to answer the question either way without contradicting the premise of the question. I believe the replies I've received so far demonstrate that.
    – T.C.
    Commented Dec 24, 2014 at 16:52
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    @eric-king, Regarding your assertion that consensus happens through the vote-to-close process: I believe you are mistaken. The help center is clear that you may close as off-topic only questions forbidden by help center guidelines. If you are closing questions to voice your personal opinion about what should be on- and off-topic, then you are violating site procedures and interfering with PSE's designed functionality. (If you still disagree after reading the help center, I suggest we move this debate to a new question -- Something like "Is the vote-to-close process how PSE finds consensus?")
    – T.C.
    Commented Dec 24, 2014 at 17:00
  • @snowman, Thomas Owens's answer is that licenses are on-topic and legal assistance is off-topic. That leaves a big gap in-between of questions that are neither about licenses nor legal assistance. You, on the other hand, imply that there is no gap; instead, there is a line, with on-topic on one side and off-topic on the other. In my mind, that makes your answer substantially different from Thomas Owens's, and rather more like MichaelT's.
    – T.C.
    Commented Dec 24, 2014 at 17:04
  • 2
    @T.C. It appears to me you weren't asking about help-center guidelines, which you seem to have already read before asking your question. You were asking about determining community consensus. Those clearly can be two different things, as the existence of your question demonstrates. I submit, still, that community consensus on the subject can be determined only by close-votes and reopen votes. That is the mechanism by which the community can declare their consensus, which may change over time.
    – Eric King
    Commented Dec 24, 2014 at 17:13
  • 1
    @T.C.In other words, the votes to close are the answer to your question regarding how "the community" views opinions on copyright law and how they relate to the off-topic concept of "legal assistance". When your question is closed, and remains closed, you have your answer regarding community consensus. If the consensus were otherwise, the community would reopen your question.
    – Eric King
    Commented Dec 24, 2014 at 17:23
  • @eric-king, Thank you for the vigorous defense of your point. I think this is best discussed elsewhere, so I started this question.
    – T.C.
    Commented Dec 24, 2014 at 18:16
  • 2
    @ganbustein The key point is what can we, as programmers, answer with expert knowledge. Legal area isn't one of those. We also aren't experts on ergonomics, or personal fitness (we've had those questions too). The scope of the site isn't "stuff about programing and non-expert advice on other matters" it is "expert advice on programming." If, as a programmer, you can't give an answer based on your expert programmer knowledge, it isn't appropriate here.
    – user40980
    Commented Jan 3, 2015 at 1:53

4 Answers 4


The Help Center is about as authorative as it gets. Questions about software licenses are on-topic, legal assistance is off-topic. It's reasonable to assume that software developers are familiar with existing licenses and how they impact a project, which is why they are on-topic.

  • Thank you for the reply. What do you mean by "legal advice", and how do you infer from the Help Center that it is off-topic? My reading of the Help Center is that legal assistance is off-topic, but all other forms of discussion, including legal analysis, interpretation, and advice are not addressed. Legal assistance has a specific meaning -- it refers to free or low-cost legal representation before the court. Are you interpreting it to mean something else?
    – T.C.
    Commented Dec 22, 2014 at 1:24
  • 8
    @T.C.: IMHO the term "legal advice" is used as defined in Wikipedia, see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Legal_advice, so it has a special meaning too. And as Wikipedia states correctly, "in some countries, legal advice is subject to the possession of a specific licence, in others [...] it can be provided by any person, that will usually be legally responsible for the provided advice". That is why we try to avoid to give anyone here "legal advice", only legal information.
    – Doc Brown
    Commented Dec 22, 2014 at 6:32
  • @doc-brown, Perhaps you misunderstand my question for Thomas Owens. He says the Help Center designates "legal advice" as off-topic. I don't see how the Help Center does so, unless he is using an unexpected definition of "legal advice" (e.g. "legal advice" = "legal assistance", perhaps). Therefore, I posted my comment in the hope that Mr. Owens would explain the reasoning which led to his answer. Your comment introduces an altogether different theory on the topic. I welcome your theory, but may I ask that you document it in a separate answer, so that the comments for this answer stay on focus?
    – T.C.
    Commented Dec 22, 2014 at 8:05
  • 1
    @T.C. I miswrote in my answer. I've edited it.
    – Thomas Owens Mod
    Commented Dec 22, 2014 at 11:31
  • @DocBrown I agree completely with everything you said up to us trying to avoid giving legal advice. I do not see the slightest discernment between giving someone information on the meaning of legal documents (licenses) and legal "advice". If that information is bad someone could end up breaking the law as a result, this is why legal "advice" should never be given from people without legal training, and so the result of giving such information vs. "advice" is the same. In short, we should not give legal information, analysis, advice, therefore we should not allow license/copyright questions. Commented Jan 7, 2015 at 22:39

Copyright questions come in a few flavors. There is the trivial, the complex, the ones that involve licenses (and CLAs) , and the ones that involve contracts.

The problem with trying to strike all of these out with a pen is likely a mistake.

There are many copyright questions that programmers are qualified to answer and do come up in the course of our employment.

  • What is necessary for putting copyright information in a source file?
  • How to properly include the license information in a minimized javascript file?
  • Does recreating a C++ program in Java allow me to change the license from GPL to BSD?
  • If I contribute some code to an Apache project using the ICLA, can I use that code in my own closed source projects?

These are all copyright questions and a programmer can give an authoritative, correct answer as an expert in the subject matter. These questions tend to be licensing questions too (which are on topic), but they are fundamentally copyright questions.

There are other questions that involve the interpretation of copyright law. Things that two lawyers would argue about in front of judge (rather than two programmers in front of a manager). These are ones that we cannot give expert answers about (beyond talk to a lawyer).

So, there are copyright questions, that when asked in the context of a question of licensing are perfectly on topic. There are also copyright questions that we are in no way qualified to answer.

But let's take things one step at a time. The question on the table is whether or not we agree that programmers are incapable of giving authoritative answers to copyright questions. Yes or no?

No. Programmers are capable of giving authoritative answers to some copyright questions.

Does everyone agree that programmers cannot authoritatively answer questions of copyright law? If yes, then let's edit the guidelines to say that copyright questions are off-topic for that reason. If no, then let's tell people to stop citing that as a reason for closing questions.

As much as it would help, it is very difficult to list all of the on or off topic subjects in the help center. Explaining the difference between this copyright question and that one and why one is on topic or not is far too much to include in the help center (and honestly, most people don't appear to read it in the first place).

The help center already has "legal advice" in there as off topic. You may have a case to extend that to "legal advice and interpretations", but that isn't likely to be much more clear than it is now.

  • 1
    Thank you for the excellent answer.Can you explain how you infer from the help center that legal advice is off-topic?
    – T.C.
    Commented Dec 24, 2014 at 6:56
  • 1
    The help center specifically lists "legal assistance" as being off topic.
    – user40980
    Commented Dec 24, 2014 at 6:58
  • If the consensus is that legal interpretation and advice are off-topic, then I would argue that the help center should say legal interpretation and advice are off-topic. It is not a question of clarity; it is a question of accuracy. A ban on "legal assistance" simply does not cover either of those topics.
    – T.C.
    Commented Dec 24, 2014 at 8:11
  • Also, can you elaborate on the line you draw between on-topic legal questions and off-topic ones? It seems to me that they all require "interpretation". Furthermore, any question which could be argued in front of a judge could also be argued in front of a manager, and vice-versa, so that isn't a good mental test. I think I don't yet understand the essence of your distinction.
    – T.C.
    Commented Dec 24, 2014 at 8:15
  • 7
    Legal interpretation, advice,and assistance are all the same thing. Commented Dec 26, 2014 at 16:53
  • 3
    I consider myself a programmer (and I’ve been hired for that for many years), and the only answer I can give as to your first point is “within our company, the powers-that-be, probably after asking the lawyers, want to see this” and “whatever helps someone who sees the code – I’m not sure if there’s any country left on earth with the strange notion that you had to put anything in there in there first place.” I’m pretty sure there are programmers who would give a different answer. Authoritative? Maybe. Lawyers have insurance for wrong answers… Commented Dec 29, 2014 at 16:52

One other way to think about it is from a courtroom sense. Professional programmers can serve as experts about programming things, providing information about them, but no opinions about how they apply to the particular case or law itself. Likewise, we try to offer no bias to our answers so they're more useful to our audience.

For your particular question, we can explain what early and late binding is - we're experts there. But we are not experts at the law, so cannot say how they apply to copyright law. Even ignoring the legal entanglements, how things apply in individual cases are specific and likely not useful for future visitors.


There's also the legal principal of "silence is consent". So if the PSE guidelines state that the consensus is that its users don't have that legal authority, and the users take action on that basis, and no one raises a hue and cry, then that's tacit agreement with that consensus.

By contrast, if the guidelines stated (correctly) that no one here has sufficient expertise to answer questions about REST, and started closing questions on that basis (justifiably), people like myself would make a big stink about it (wrongly) and not silently accept that as the consensus. There would clearly not be consensus, but rather controversy & challenge.

That's even more web lawyering than I'm comfortable with, but the upshot is, we don't have to take a vote. If the community accepts that as the consensus & takes actions on that basis, that's good enough to establish consensus.

...or, to put a fine point on it, after your question was closed, there were no votes to reopen it despite all the opportunities people had. So, consensus.

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