Our current guidance regarding software licensing can be found here. The current guidance says that a general rule of thumb is that questions answerable by experts in software development are on-topic, while questions that need the expertise of a lawyer are off-topic.

As we practice the craft of software development, we need to understand (at least at a high level) common licenses, especially open-source licenses. Our current guidance specifies that questions should be about the spirit of the license and not the legal nuances or specifics of the license. Questions should also be about the license itself, and not the broader copyright laws that allow for licensing. Finally, the question should be about commonly known licenses that we, as experts in software development, are likely to be exposed to.

In previous discussions of software licensing, we wanted to include it in our scope simply because it was an important topic to us, as software developers. We frequently interact with software and source code generally available on the Internet under a multitude of licenses. Understanding how these licenses work is part of our day-to-day job as we design and build software. At the time, these questions were often a good fit for the Stack Exchange format, and there was no better place to get expert answers to them.

The argument that there is no better place to ask and get answers to software licensing questions is no longer true. Law is a launched site, out of beta. Open Source is still in beta, but is doing OK on many metrics - it's weakest points are in questions per day and visits per day. After browsing both sites, the quality of answers in the realm of software licensing (and in the case of Law, other topics such as intellectual property law, copyright, patents, trade secrets, trademarks, and contracts) on Law and Open Source tends to be of equal, and often greater, than here.

Given this, should we continue to support questions about software licenses here?

  • 3
    I don't know... Will people in Law understand about software licenses? And what if the license in question is not open source?
    – Andres F.
    Commented Oct 25, 2016 at 20:46
  • 2
    @AndresF. I linked to Law. You can browse their tags. Law accepts many questions about open source software or other aspects of software development. They not only understand software licenses, but other things at the intersection of software development and law. Open Source, as its name implies, also does a very good job of questions regarding open source licenses, but other aspects of the open source culture and community.
    – Thomas Owens Mod
    Commented Oct 25, 2016 at 20:48
  • How unsuitable do you consider the licensing questions since the name change? Are they questions you don't want to see on the site? I know in the past it was a very broad category with an "Ask programmers" mentality, but has it changed at all since we switched to Software Engineering and do we need to be explicit about it still?
    – Rachel
    Commented Oct 26, 2016 at 14:53
  • 3
    @Rachel It has nothing to do with the name change. Back in 2010-2012 when we were discussing "software law" and "software licensing" as in scope and I was advocating for it, it's because I felt that it was an important topic to professional software developers that didn't have a good place to ask about. Today, there is one launched site and one strong beta site that support such questions better than we do. Making it off-topic here helps make it much easier to describe our scope and helps askers by getting them better answers and getting those answers vetted by experts in the field.
    – Thomas Owens Mod
    Commented Oct 26, 2016 at 14:58
  • @Rachel FWIW licensing topic was touched in one of early discussions of name change and decided to be handled independently: "plan is to consider this a minor issue that can be clarified later per separate meta discussion. (since this part of Help Center is mod editable, adding and removing bullets is a lightweight change)"
    – gnat
    Commented Oct 26, 2016 at 15:41
  • @ThomasOwens Sorry, I wrote that with this comment of yours in mind, where you mentioned you'd be willing to consider leaving it on-topic if we could simplify the definition. I was thinking perhaps with the name change, we wouldn't get quite so many "ask a programmer" type of questions about licensing, and would be getting ones more directly related to what might be expected in an average software engineer's knowledgebase.
    – Rachel
    Commented Oct 26, 2016 at 15:52
  • @Rachel There are plenty of closed and deleted licensing questions about EULAs, proprietary licenses, and so on. I don't see a simply way of excluding one set of licensing questions and including another set without a lot of descriptive text. For example, we don't do "help me choose a license" (but Open Source will help you choose an open source license with sufficient detail), so that must be excluded.
    – Thomas Owens Mod
    Commented Oct 26, 2016 at 16:21
  • 1
    Hi there folks. Mod here from Open Source SE I'm seeing a few questions and confusions as to stuff around the scope of Open Source and Law. I'm very experienced with both sites, so if you have any questions, feel free to look around at the FAQ, ask meta, or hunt me down. I'm fairly easy to find in chat, or a simple ping in the comments.
    – Zizouz212
    Commented Nov 10, 2016 at 22:37

4 Answers 4



We currently have lots of great Q&A's that specifically address licensing.

Questions about software licences are well within the purview of the Software Development Life-Cycle.

We should not be gerrymandering our site's scope to specifically exclude them just because Law.SE exists. Instead, we should be jealous of our questions.

If an aspect of a question includes licensing considerations, that should not be an excuse to put the question on hold or to migrate it.

Some questions may have a licensing component, yet still need software development expertise. A general judgment that license questions are off topic will stop good questions.

For example, questions related to what sort of license one should use for your code, or questions about the ramifications of incorporating a library that has a certain license, have not only a legal component but a software engineering component (about the practical consequences).

If we accept that licencing questions are on topic on Open Source SE, then why not here?

One could argue that Open Source should not allow licensing questions either, since law.se exists. But I don't think anyone would agree with that; there is a particular community with expertise in open source software, that can provide useful answers (even if they aren't legal experts). Given that argument, where is there a similar community of experts who can answer licensing questions that aren't necessarily about open source software, from a software development perspective?

There is no perfect definition of off-topic licensing questions, but that doesn't differ from other reasons for questions being off topic.

Much has been made of the complexity of the on-topic judgment. However, I think the first sentence is a pretty good guideline:

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

Isn't that enough to go on? Yes, it requires a judgement call, but so do things like what is an allowable "subjective" question. The difficulty of drawing a hard line should not prevent good questions from being allowed.

  • I made this a community wiki so that it can be modified as best suits the position. I specifically have 4 undergraduate (2 business) and 2 graduate level business law classes under my belt. While IANAL, neither are the answerers on Law.SE. Where we are competent enough to answer, I think we should.
    – Aaron Hall
    Commented Oct 25, 2016 at 21:02
  • 2
    "I made this a community wiki so that it can be modified as best suits the position." bad idea, changing the content of this answer drastically is not suitable on meta, because that would invalidate all votes the answer received. Instead, create one answer per opinion so users can vote on them individually. We're not stack overflow docs.
    – null
    Commented Oct 25, 2016 at 21:24
  • 5
    The question asks for a "no" or a "yes" - as long as the meaning isn't changed, content backing up the "yes" position can be added by others.
    – Aaron Hall
    Commented Oct 25, 2016 at 21:43
  • You make the assertion that software licences are part of the SDLC. We link to that page of Wikipedia in the Help Center for normalizing on terms - where in the SDLC does licensing fall?
    – Thomas Owens Mod
    Commented Oct 26, 2016 at 0:48
  • 3
    Also, I would be willing to move toward "yes, these questions should be on-topic" if someone can reduce the complexity in explaining exactly what we mean by "licensing questions". Having an explanation that is longer (by about 2x) than the entire definition of the rest of our scope is not useful to people who don't know where to go to post their question.
    – Thomas Owens Mod
    Commented Oct 26, 2016 at 1:21
  • 8
    @ThomasOwens I always thought it was "Are you asking legal advice? Go to Law.SE. Are you asking for an engineer's advice for something that should be semi-common knowledge among software engineers? You're OK here."
    – Rachel
    Commented Oct 26, 2016 at 14:56
  • 3
    +1 to Rachel, but note that "legal advice" is off-topic on Law.SE - they provide "legal information".
    – Aaron Hall
    Commented Oct 26, 2016 at 15:07
  • @ThomasOwens On that Wikipedia page the SDLC step "System investigation" includes "Legal/political feasibility". Using GPL components in a commercial software system could be legally unfeasible as it could cause the whole system to become GPL & freely distributable. Licensing questions could also arise under analysis & design, if there are decisions about incorporating existing third party code/components.
    – MarkJ
    Commented Oct 26, 2016 at 16:09
  • 2
    @MarkJ I interpret that as an investigation into the legal or political impact of your system. Extreme examples being building malware or spyware, software that can be used to perform electronic wiretapping, and so on. It links to a different section of Wikipedia that seems to support my definition. System investigation happens before design, so looking at component level details just doesn't make sense.
    – Thomas Owens Mod
    Commented Oct 26, 2016 at 16:20


The concept of licensing questions being on-topic has a long history. When the topicality of this site was first discussed, "software law" was originally on-topic. But this definition of legal questions needed clarification. Eventually, we even updated the help documentation to better reflect scope. And then had to make more changes to the FAQ (which pre-dated the current Help Center). And even then there were many, many, many, many, many, many questions to clarify this particular point of the scope.

Today, the accepted stance is that software licensing questions are on-topic. However, it's incredibly nuanced. The answer requires 24 bullets (3 deep in some cases) to describe how to determine if your software licensing question is on or off-topic. In addition, there need to be three other examples and guidance. The post describing the set of on-topic software licensing questions is over twice length of the entire Help Center article for what is on-topic (520 words to 260 words / 2,987 characters to 1,580 characters).

At one point, I even advocated for us making sure that licensing questions were on-topic here. I don't dispute that we have many great questions and some great and many really good answers about software licenses. I also don't dispute that this topic is incredibly important to software engineers - creating, extending, and incorporating third-party software packages is essential and open source software is pervasive.

However, when I advocated for licensing questions to be on-topic here, that was before the Law and Open Source communities were launched. We were a community of software engineers who cared, among other things, about software licenses. There was no site where these questions fit well and we had sufficient expertise to at least try to help people who came to us with at least a subset of licensing questions.

I believe one of our first responsibilities should be to the person who is asking the question and to people who may find that question when they do a search using their favorite search engine. They should ideally end up on a site where the community can provide expert answers and review (and vote on) those answers.

The "Respect the community - your own, and others'" blog post provides some guidance.

First, it cites a previous blog post, Why Can't You Have Just One Site? to figure out the definition of your community:

Is it really so hard to figure out which community you belong to, and thus, where your question belongs? Ask yourself this:

  • what is your job title?

  • which community do you consider yourself a part of?

  • what are you trying to accomplish?

You can use the same mountain to go downhill really fast on snow -- but it's plainly evident to the participant which culture they consider themselves a part of, "skiers" or "snowboarders".

Following all of the recent discussions regarding our name, we came up with the definition (which is now in our Help Center and Tour) that we are a community of "professionals, academics, and students working within the systems development life cycle" - we are software engineers (and some people don't like that term, so I'll also say that we are also software craftsman). We are trying to accomplish "creating, delivering, and maintaining software responsibly".

For completeness sake, I frequently cite it for the scope of the discipline of software engineering, so I do need to point out that one subsection of Software Engineering Professional Practice in the IEEE Guide to the Software Body of Knowledge v3 is indeed legal issues and includes "matters related to standards, trademarks, patents, copyrights, trade secrets, professional liability, legal requirements, trade compliance, and cybercrime". However, it also goes on to say that "software engineers must consult attorneys who specialize in the type and jurisdiction of any identified legal issues."

Scope Gerrymandering: attempting to micromanage what’s on-topic in order to avoid overlap with other sites or simply drive away users seen as undesirable.

The Respect the Community blog post says to avoid gerrymandering. I agree that there is going to be overlap. I accept that - we even had the croissants experiment where we demonstrated the overlap and differences with sites like Computer Science, Stack Overflow, and Code Golf. I believe when we took on the whole realm of software law, and then even after we narrowed that down to software licensing, we were doing the opposite of gerrymandering (I also learned that there is no antonym of gerrymander).

We are all practitioners of software engineering. Many of us have formal and structured training, either from a college, a university, or a bootcamp. However, the amount of education in the topic of legal issues tends to be very small for many of us. I don't see this as attempting to avoid overlap or drive users away, but guide users to a more appropriate place to ask their questions, get answers, and have those answers peer reviewed by many other people with the needed knowledge.

Don’t migrate poorly-asked or non-constructive questions. Just close them. If you want to help the asker out by recommending a site where their question would be on-topic, go ahead - but also recommend they read that site’s FAQ first!

I think we do this. For low quality questions, we have a custom "legal advice" close reason that calls out the Help Centers of Open Source and Law. However, this only addresses those poorly asked questions. Many of the software licensing questions asked here are actually good questions.

Do leave comments on questions that might get better answers somewhere else.

I disagree with this advice. We have had significant problems with users on Stack Overflow telling people to ask their questions on our site. It leads to cross-posting. As a moderator, I'd rather have a flag and a reviewing a possible migration than having people leave comments and dealing with cleaning up low-quality answers left by people who aren't knowledgable on the topic or cleaning up after cross-posting.

At the end of the day, I want to do what is best for the people with the problem. I think that is moving questions to where the experts are.

  • 5
    I disagree because I don't want a question that includes an aspect of licensing to be closed until the questioner (or another helpful soul) edits the licensing parts out. There are currently lots of good Q&A's specifically on licensing: softwareengineering.stackexchange.com/questions/tagged/… - and I see no reason to stop accepting them.
    – Aaron Hall
    Commented Oct 25, 2016 at 21:48
  • @AaronHall search shows 50 open positive score questions in last 7 months, that's 1-2 a week. Speaking of "good" questions in the sense of respective badge (score 25+), we're getting 1-2 a year
    – gnat
    Commented Oct 26, 2016 at 20:41
  • @gnat I count 31 questions in your second search result. This SE has not been around for 15 to 30 years. How did you get "1-2 per year"?
    – jpmc26
    Commented Oct 26, 2016 at 23:34
  • @jpmc26 look at the last years 2013-2016, that's when there were 1-2 per year
    – gnat
    Commented Oct 27, 2016 at 4:44
  • 1
    @jpmc26 There are 31 questions with a score of 25+ from all time here. However, our scope and community didn't settle until 2012, and since then we've had only 12 questions that meet the criteria. We average, at best, 3 good licensing questions per year. In 2015-2016, we've had 2.
    – Thomas Owens Mod
    Commented Oct 27, 2016 at 9:14

I tend to agree, but I think my reasoning is more focused on pragmatism. In my eyes, this isn't so much about having a "clear and concise" scope (as you note in a comment).

The motivation of an SE site is to provide useful information to askers and readers. Expert participants on Law and Open Source are likely to have more knowledge and experience in licensing; it is more closely tied to their specialties. This isn't like the difference between Movies.SE and SciFi.SE, where overlap between the two subject matters is so broad that experts at each site are roughly equally capable of answering questions that could be on topic for either. The target experts of Law and Open Source by definition gives them an edge. As a result, an asker is likely to get a more complete, more thorough, and therefore more useful, answer on those sites than one where the experts primarily specialize in software development.

I do have one concern, though: are there questions about software licensing that would be on topic here currently but would not be on topic at the other sites? If banning these questions from SoftwareEngineering.SE could result in useful questions losing a home on the SE network, I would rather err on the side of caution. What does a look at the existing questions about the topic tell us in this regard?

  • 1
    With what do you agree?
    – Aaron Hall
    Commented Oct 26, 2016 at 2:15
  • 3
    @AaronHall The opinion that the OP is clearly leading toward. ;)
    – jpmc26
    Commented Oct 26, 2016 at 5:00


Engineering as a discipline is concerned with designing and assembling systems that are fit for their intended purposes. In the world of software, licensing in part determines how components fit together, how systems integrate, and the range of available maintenance strategies.

There is a sense in which selection of a software license is as much an engineering decision as compliance with a consensus standard or implementing an existing protocol. Knowledge and expertise about relevant legal issues is part of professional engineering (e.g. compliance with building codes, implementing the specifications of a contract, complying with regulations for security clearance, etc.).

Engineers are not lawyers. But engineers are not the lay public, either.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .