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I would like to ask a question about software licensing. The help center says:

If you have a question about...

  • ...
  • software licensing

and it is not about...

  • ...
  • legal advice or aid

It seems like there is a lot of overlap between those two categories. In what situations is my software licensing question on-topic?


Further reading, history and citations:

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As a rule of thumb, questions are on topic if they are answerable by expert programmers, as opposed to expert lawyers.

Additionally, here are some questions you can ask yourself to determine if your question is on topic or not:

  • Is the question about the spirit of the license, or the detailed terms of the license?
    • Programmers can easily understand things like "GPLv3 is meant to protect against tivoization" without going to law school.
    • We are more concerned about violating the library author's wishes then we are about exposing ourselves to some legal action from the author's lawyers.
  • Is the question about licensing or copyright?
    • If it's about copyright, in most cases the question is off topic. 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?
    • The former could be on-topic, but the latter is likely not to be, 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 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.
  • Is the question purely hypothetical and / or contrived?
    • If so, off-topic.
  • Is the question about applying an open source license to their application?
    • Likely on-topic 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?
    • Likely on-topic, although in some rare edge cases the question is off-topic and you should contact the Free Software Foundation directly.
  • Is this a "Pick a license for me" question?
    • This is the most difficult topic to have good guidelines about.
    • In general:
      1. Are you looking for an open source (or related) license?
      2. Have you provided enough details about how you want to license your application?
    • If you answered "yes" to both of those questions, it's probably on topic.

Here are some example scenarios for further guidance:

  • Question: Can I legally sell a closed-source program that dynamically links to a GPL'd library?
    • ON TOPIC
    • Most programmers know the answer to this without having to consult a lawyer.
    • For reference, the answer is yes
  • Question: Is the WTFPL a risky license?
    • OFF TOPIC
    • Most programmers could only give a vague claim that MIT/Apache/etc are "probably safer", but would have no legal expertise to back up that opinion
    • This sort of issue has never been tested in court so the honest lawyer answer may simply be "nobody knows yet".
  • If you ask a question, and most people seem confident to answer it without saying IANAL (I am not a lawyer)
    • Probably on-topic
    • This is the "reverse IANAL" test

Main contributors: @durron597, @Ixrec, @GlenH7, @gnat

  • 2
    I wouldn't immediately say the third example is necessarily off-topic, as I've noticed a lot of high-rep users erroneously state that all licensing questions are off topic, and other users will write IANAL even on questions such as the first example, to add to the confusion. – whatsisname Apr 1 '15 at 19:06
  • I am not a lawyer, medical professional, licensed tax consultant, able seaman or dairy farmer, but I agree with @whatsisname – Philipp Apr 2 '15 at 9:18
  • I also agree that this is slightly overemphasizing the "IANAL test"; many good answers to on-topic questions might say things like "IANAL so do talk to one if you need any more help". But +1 for including my silly WTFPL example =) – Ixrec Apr 3 '15 at 12:56
  • I'd rather stick with "revert IANAL" test. If most / all answers are not using this disclaimer, this indicates a fat chance for question to be on topic, and one would better think twice before voting / flagging to close – gnat Apr 3 '15 at 13:45
  • FYI, the link in the example GPL question is broken (at least, I'm guessing, for <10k users on SO) – Tim Malone Jun 25 '16 at 21:53
  • 1
    @TimMalone Well look what you started: meta.stackoverflow.com/q/327056/1768232 – durron597 Jun 29 '16 at 16:52
  • @durron597 Thanks for the heads up! Posted an answer in that meta thread and also asking if Open Source wants it. – Tim Malone Jun 29 '16 at 19:26

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