In this question, I had a disagreement with the original asker about whether a legal advice / software licensing question is on topic. I now think that I was wrong when I voted to close originally, but that's a bit beside the point...

Context: Here's the help center about what's on topic (abbeviated):

If you have a question about...

  • ...
  • software licensing

and it is not about...

  • ...
  • legal advice or aid

I would like to see the on this issue improved some. There is enough potential overlap between software licensing and legal advice or aid that the relevant faq question should address this distinction explicitly.

How can we add some clarity to the faq guidelines on this issue? Thank you @Ixrec for your answer about what is and what is not on topic, but some digging (see above) has shown this topic has come up before. This question is about how should we change the faq so that less digging needs to be done, and we can have a canonical answer on the subject.


2 Answers 2


My understanding on legal/licensing questions has always been: If it can be reasonably and confidently answered by an experienced programmer, without needing to consult any actual lawyers, then it's okay here.

For instance, it's fair to ask a programmer whether or not you can legally sell a closed-source program that dynamically links to a GPL'd library. Most of us know the answer to that without getting any formal legal advice, and if I chose to qualify my answer with "IANAL", it would be more out of paranoia than anything else. However, if you asked me whether or not the WTFPL is a "risky" license...all I could give you is a vague claim that MIT/Apache/etc are "probably safer", but I have no legal expertise to back up that opinion, and many of these issues have never been tested in court so the honest lawyer answer may simply be "nobody knows yet".

In general, if the question is about the "spirit" of the license, we can probably answer it. Programmers can easily understand things like "GPLv3 is meant to protect against tivoization" without going to law school. I would hope that when we're worried about violating a library's license, we're usually more concerned about violating the library author's wishes then we are about exposing ourselves to some legal action from the author's lawyers.

  • 2
    Very nice answer to a potentially difficult question. Commented Mar 31, 2015 at 5:02

For fear of the ultimate answer being "I know it when I see it...", I'll try to add some of the criteria I use when deciding if a question is on-topic or not for the site.

Why me? Well, I'm currently the top answerer for the copyright tag and the number four answerer for the licensing tag. Six others and I hold the bronze license badge and no one currently has a bronze copyright badge. I'm also a prolific close voter, so I think I have a decent perspective on this question.

So what do I look for in determining if the question is answerable or not? Or more specifically, should I vote to close?

  • Is the question about licensing or copyright? If it's about copyright, I generally vote to close. Copyright laws vary by jurisdiction and can be subject to some seemingly obscure rules despite the efforts of the Berne convention.

  • Does the question pertain to an open or commonly known license, or is it about a proprietary or commercial license? If it's a proprietary and / or commercial license, I vote to close because it's:

    • Unlikely we can read the full license, so answers will be speculative
    • Unlikely to be of value to future visitors
    • Likely to need an attorney to interpret what the terms actually mean
  • Does every answer start with "IANAL", ie "I am not a lawyer", or have it somewhere in the body of the answer? If so, that's a sign to me that the answers are speculative and an attorney is required to interpret. Vote to close.

    • Aside: If you feel compelled to start an answer with IANAL, then you probably shouldn't write the answer. It's a useless phrase that just adds noise to the mix.
  • Does the question really require an attorney to answer? Some questions are so specific, narrowly focused, or the potential consequences are significant enough that consulting an attorney is really the only viable option to consider. Great candidate for a VTC.

  • Is the question purely hypothetical and / or contrived? If so, vote to close. You could argue that this is a duplicate condition of the "does this require an attorney to answer" bullet point.

Programmers aren't lawyers (generally), but programmers do encounter common situations involving points of law and licensing. Lots of companies incorporate open source software into their products and have worked with their legal teams in order to make sure things were done correctly. And while legal matters may appear to be a black art, there are some circumstances that are fairly commonplace and more or less universal in their application.

Here's some of the things I look for in order to leave a question open.

  • Is the question about applying an open source license to their application? Likely answerable as others have done this as well.

  • Is there a related question and answer in the FSF GNU FAQ or in the FSF's commentary about open source license compatibility with the GPL? Again likely answerable, although in some rare edge cases you should vote to close and encourage the OP to contact Free Software Foundation directly.

  • Is the question about an actual or likely issue and not just some hypothetical? If so, the actual details should be present within the question (or provided by the OP) and the question should be answerable.

  • (My catch all bullet point) Do I feel that this question is answerable within a reasonable expectation of what the community's experience is regarding licensing topics? If so, I leave the question open.

There's a special category of licensing questions that I remain on the fence about. These are the "pick a license for me!" type questions. Discerning whether they are answerable or not becomes more difficult. In general, I look to see if they are a) looking for an open source (or related) license and b) if they provide enough details about how they want to license their application. Those questions are usually answerable.

But we'll see some where the OP has some amazingly restrictive ideas about how their application is to be used. It's safe to say that these fall outside of the community's experience and an attorney is required in order to answer the question. So I vote to close.


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