Why? Because all the remaining questions are either crap, or they get closed anyway.

Crap questions

Most recent questions it seems are either some sort of:

  • Tell me how to follow this license because reading the license is too hard
  • Tell me if this scheme to use GPL software in a proprietary project is going to work.

Both of those areas produce garbage questions, and should be locked. I can provide plenty of examples of both if requested.

Closed anyway

The other problem is that the handful of questions that I think actually do fit the on-topic requirements seem to just get closed anyway. It seems there are many users that automatically VTC licensing questions at the slightest suspicion of licensing. I'll provide two examples of this.

Example: Can I use a GPLv3 licensed web component library in a closed source commercial web application? As of right now this question has 3 close votes as being off-topic. If they were close votes for duplicate questions I wouldn't complain, as this question is in fact a duplicate, but no one has bothered to look. Ignoring the fact that it's a duplicate, it's actually not that bad, because it's reasonable to be a little unsure whether javascript in a webpage is considered distribution/conveying in GPL terms. The fact that the duplicate has decent upvotes should indicate it's a reasonable question, and the essence of the two is almost the same.

Here's an example of a crap question: https://softwareengineering.stackexchange.com/questions/351545/creating-a-proprietary-kernel-forked-from-linux-and-claiming-it-as-my-own/351546#351546 that got closed and deleted. If we ignore the crappiness of it, the meat is actually on topic. It's about the spirit of the GPL, it's about licensing, it's about a commonly known license, and it most definitely does not require a lawyer to answer. But, it ultimately got closed and deleted not because it was a garbage question, but erroneously because it was off-topic.

Here's a non-crap question Can I copy a project from CodePlex to GitHub that as of this edit has 4 votes to close, all 4 for legal advice or aid.

In short, I haven't seen a good licensing question that didn't get closed in a long time.

I know this topic has been beaten pretty hard but I've been keeping an eye on it and have noticed some things. The on-topic guidelines are not in the help center plus it's long and convoluted, so we might as well just make the rules match what people are doing anyway.

Proposed Change

  • Change the bullet point in What topics can I ask about here? and the tour from legal advice and aid to licensing, copyright, patents, legal advice or aid.

  • Change the bolded text of the close reason to match the above new text.

  • 2
    What would make this stronger is a proposal for a close reason. Right now, we have one (Questions asking for legal advice or aid are off-topic here. You may be able to get help with understanding, applying, and complying with free and open licenses on Open Source. You may be able to get help with legal terms, concepts, language, and procedures on Law.). Should this be changed? If so, what should the proposed wording be. Note that the limit is 400 characters (including the Markup needed to link to other sites). Also note that when linking to other sites, we link to their /help/on-topic page. – Thomas Owens Mod Jun 27 '17 at 0:35
  • Also, consider a single bullet point (<=20 words, probably closer to 5-10) that can go on our /help/on-topic page. Right now, we explicitly identify legal advice or aid as off-topic. Ideally, this bullet point would align with the specific close reason (note the relationship between the bolded text in the close reasons and the bullets in the Help Center). Would this bullet point have to change or would this just be an enforcement change that links to a Meta post explaining why these questions are now off-topic? – Thomas Owens Mod Jun 27 '17 at 0:40
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    Just a note: The answer could be that the text of the close reason and the bullet point in the Help Center don't change. But I do think that this proposal should address if the documentation (close reason, /help/on-topic page, and tour page) should be updated and how it should be updated if it needs to be. – Thomas Owens Mod Jun 27 '17 at 0:43
  • Though I don't think we should act as proposed by you, I think you asked a good question, so +1 (just don't interpret upvotes as agreement). – Doc Brown Jun 27 '17 at 10:47
  • @ThomasOwens: I don't think changing the close vote text is going to solve it. I'd thought about it for awhile before posing this question. I think the available topics in licensing that are both within the realm of on-topic and yet haven't been asked is going to be vanishly small, as evidenced by the abundance of crap and the lack of non-duplicated non-crap questions. While outright killing licensing as on-topic would stifle those remaining diamonds in the rough, I think it's a reasonable price for more consistent enforcement of topicality, especially when the Law and Open Source sites exist. – whatsisname Jun 27 '17 at 19:28
  • @ThomasOwens: maybe it helps to add pointers to "Law.SE" and "Open Source.SE" to the license tag description, and give a recommendation to check if the question would be suited better for one of those sites. – Doc Brown Jun 28 '17 at 18:45

I would be very much in favour of completely dropping licensing from our scope.

While legal aspects certainly are a part of software engineering, we could only answer the most simple questions here. And anecdotally, most questions are not so simple. Even “simple” questions about open source licenses sometimes have thorny edge cases, making answers here most likely wrong.

We just don't have the expert community for that.

As observed in the question, the community largely already behaves as if licensing questions were off-topic. They usually get closed with the “no legal advice” close reason, and occasionally a question is migrated to the Open Source site.

Of course, the people posting licensing questions are also part of the community and clearly have other expectations. But since we don't have an expert community that could answer these questions authoritatively, we are doing them a disservice by kind of still allowing licensing. And if such a question is closed anyway, our site scope may feel like a bait-and-switch.

So we should really just drop licensing from our scope.

I think the “legal advice” close reason can stay as it is, since it addresses licensing explicitly:

Questions asking for legal advice or aid are off-topic here. You may be able to get help with understanding, applying, and complying with free and open licenses on Open Source. You may be able to get help with legal terms, concepts, language, and procedures on Law.

In the on-topic page in the help center, we currently only single out general legal advice or aid:

Some questions, even if they appear to fit into one of the above categories, may still be off-topic or a poor fit for this format:

  • legal advice or aid

it would be helpful if it would mention licensing explicitly, so I would suggest to rephrase that bullet point to:

  • licensing or legal advice
  • 3
    "the community largely already behaves as if licensing questions were off-topic" - that is true, but I don't like it and I don't think we should encourage it, quite the opposite. – Doc Brown Jun 27 '17 at 10:49
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    Sorry, even if people here seem to agree with your statement, "We just don't have the expert community for that" - I still believe this is not true, even if my answer got lots of downvotes (with actually no one arguing against this part of my answer). – Doc Brown Jun 27 '17 at 18:52
  • @DocBrown I agree that the “no experts” thing currently is an assertion without any proof or evidence. To me it seems really obvious, and I'm still thinking about how to explain this properly. I'll ping you if I come up with something. – amon Jun 27 '17 at 19:48
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    I think there are plenty of people with close votes that think "there are no experts" and vote accordingly. – whatsisname Jun 27 '17 at 20:01
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    I'm not on the site every day, but it's been quite a long, long time since I've seen a licensing-related question that isn't asking for legal advice or would simply be more appropriate to ask on Law or Open Source. I don't remember any that pertain to the Systems development life cycle that we highlight on the help/on-topic page (and which has nary mention of 'licensing'). – Eric King Jul 11 '17 at 21:18

First and foremost, I think the arguments presented in this former answer to a question asked by Thomas Owens from last year are still valid. So I don't think we should make all licensing questions off-topic, even in the presence of "Open Source.SE" and "Law.SE".

If questions have the low quality you described, we already have the justification and instruments for downvoting and closing them, regardless of the tags they contain. However, looking at the questions tagged with 'licensing', I don't think they are all "crap, or they get closed anyway" - as in many other categories, there is a lot of crap in there, but also some very good questions which are clearly on-topic. We should close questions because they contain crap or don't show any research effort, but not because they belong to a certain category - a category which is clearly part of the SDLC, but not popular for parts of our community.

Moreover, I don't buy @amon's reasoning about our community having no experts for this. I am pretty sure most of professional software engineers had to deal with evaluating third party tools, libraries or frameworks, or had to pick or create a license for their own software. So several of them have practical, first-hand experience with licensing questions. This experience might lack a formal judicial background, but on the other hand, I guess most lawyers don't have a practical or formal software engineering background either. Software licensing questions often require cross-domain knowledge of Software Engineering and legal aspects, and though one may not find the "perfect expert" in our community for hardcore legal questions, many of the licensing questions can be answered here in a useful manner.

So I am in favor of keeping licensing questions on-topic as long as they match the on-topic requirements. However, I also noted a certain cargo cult in this community voting for close any licensing question, on-topic or not. IMHO we should not encourage this behaviour, quite the opposite. Making questions tagged 'licensing' all off-topic would IMHO

  • justify this cargo-cult even more, just to hit the "close" button for formal reasons, without thinking if the question itself could be fine (maybe without the licensing tag)

  • make people still ask licensing questions without using the tag

I wish more people, before quickly closing anything which contains one sentence which might be interpreted as a question for "legal advice", would think twice and ask themselves if the core part of the question could be still on-topic, and if it needs just some editing. At least, people could invest a little bit more time to investigate if a certain question could be migrated to Open Source or Law instead of closing and deleting so quickly.

  • 4
    is your default sort in search set to "active"? if yes consider checking licensing tag sorted by "newest" instead because it gives a bit different picture. In last year I could find only about handful licensing questions that look okay and maybe dozen of "meh, not much harm in having these here". This looks rather poor. Especially comparing to older times (you can get to these in same search sorted by newest, just go to older pages). Probably better ones go to Law and Open Source SE now – gnat Jun 27 '17 at 11:46
  • @gnat: no, it is not set to active. I get just a similar picture when I search for java questions. So following this reasoning, we should make every Java questions off-topic, too? – Doc Brown Jun 27 '17 at 13:03
  • 1
    comparison to java tag won't work because picture is not really similar. First page of licensing questions shows almost all this year and it's easy to tell how it went quality wise. And going to next 2-3 pages it is easy to see all questions for prior years and compare (that's just what made me think it looks like a dying topic over here). For java tag, one has to flip two pages of results only to get to questions cleaned up by 30-days roomba, it is so much more active... – gnat Jun 27 '17 at 13:25
  • ...one willing to find out if java tag is okay or not would have to do much more work and study much more questions than licensing - for the latter mere 100-200 recent ones make representative selection of recent years. Licensing question #200 by newest is over 1,5 years old, java #200 is only about half year old – gnat Jun 27 '17 at 13:25
  • I do agree that in general, we should tend toward editing out an off-topic line or two in an otherwise on-topic question rather than gravitating toward the close button. The key is the question being mostly on-topic with only a small part asking legal advice, a resource request, or something else off-topic. – user22815 Jun 27 '17 at 15:59
  • @Snowman: absolutely, but making the whole licensing category completely off-topic will encourage people even more to "gravitate to the close button" instead of trying to save the question. – Doc Brown Jun 27 '17 at 18:51
  • 2
    As others have indicated, while there are a lot of good old questions, my observation is that the recent questions are all complete garbage, or duplicates that get closed for legal advice. There's only so many ways we can rehash answers from the GNU FAQ which seems to already have the answer to 95% of the non-crap answers. While I would ideally like to see the topic remain open and still get no answers, the practical reality is that I don't think that is going to happen, as it hasn't happened for the last year or so. – whatsisname Jun 27 '17 at 19:22
  • 1
    I do agree with you that a lot of folks do have the knowledge and confidence to accurately answer a lot of licensing questions, but there are others that don't, and they project their lack of knowledge and confidence onto everyone else and have close votes to go along with it. – whatsisname Jun 27 '17 at 19:22
  • @whatsisname But that would be an argument for educating these users about the actual scope. Molding the scope after their ignorance would not seem wise. Instead, I think the issue is that while some individuals are certainly able to answer these questions authoritatively, the required knowledge is fundamentally outside of software engineering, similar to how we don't consider most project management questions as on-topic. I'm still searching for suitable words to explain this well. – amon Jun 27 '17 at 20:09
  • @amon: no need to search for suitable words for a wrong assumption ;-) I am not under the impression on-topic licensing question got bad answers in the past, or too few answers at all, which would indicate what you are trying to proof. – Doc Brown Jun 27 '17 at 20:54

I say we stop beating this dead horse and nuke it along with the licensing questions.

We should make Software Engineering SE great again: add licensing to the pile of off-topicness.

  • 4
    This answer doesn't contribute very much right now. Care to explain your reasoning why this would make SE.SE "great"? – jpmc26 Jun 27 '17 at 10:04
  • 1
    @jpmc26 I guess it is bit harder to see the problem when you're under 10-20K rep and can't see deleted questions (OP here is above 20K and is fairly active in deletions). Although tip of that iceberg is visible to anyone in search results, only quality issues with licensing questions are bit less prominent since search results exclude deleted posts – gnat Jun 27 '17 at 12:48
  • 3
    @gnat It has nothing to do with what I can or cannot see or whether I agree or disagree with the proposal in the question. I merely said this answer contributes somewhere between nothing and very little. It's two very opinionated sentences without any backing. It really boils down to "+1." – jpmc26 Jun 27 '17 at 12:57
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    @jpmc26 this issue is an old, dead horse that the more active members on this site have kicked around for the past few years. Sorry, but I don't feel like summarizing what everyone already knows. If you want that, read amon's answer. – user22815 Jun 27 '17 at 15:56
  • @jpmc26 applying norms of the main site at meta is a known trick to cover voting down on the matters of simple disagreement. It doesn't work though because meta is officially different – gnat Jun 27 '17 at 16:31
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    @gnat I'm not applying norms of the main site. I know Meta is more lenient about the content it allows, but that doesn't mean that completely useless content is welcome. This answer in its current form doesn't do anything more than an upvote on the question would (express agreement). At most, it should be a comment. Quit ignoring what I'm saying in favor of blindly dropping info I already know; it's rude. – jpmc26 Jun 27 '17 at 19:16

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