I was surprised to find that my answer "Reports of GPLv3 and AGPLv3 "virality" are greatly exaggerated" for the question "AGPL - what you can do and what you can't" was deleted -- the first time a deletion ever happened to me.

I read up about deletions on help/deleted-answers and found that (in my view) my answer is nowhere near the profile of things that would usually be deleted. I contacted the moderator who performed the deletion and he suggested I start a discussion here at Meta.

Looking for related discussions, I found "What types of legal questions are on-topic here?", for which the top answer suggests a legal question would be on-topic if it asks something in general terms (and off-topic if it asks for personal legal advice.)

But a general, relevant-to-programmers discussion is exactly what I believe this question and my answer are doing:

  • My answer is controversial, but it argues carefully for its claims (unlike nearly all of the critical comments)
  • It provides specific pointers to the relevant original materials and other sources supporting that argumentation.
  • It answers the original question, if lengthily.
  • It took about half a day to research and compose and is correspondingly detailed and thorough. It has received 93 upvotes. (I wrote it because I had long wanted to clarify this for myself and I consider it one of my three-or-so best contributions to the stackexchange universe.)

Do you think this deletion is appropriate? Inappropriate? Why?
If inappropriate, please vote for undelection (at the answer).

  • 3
    A similar case (not a dupe, gnat!) was discussed here: softwareengineering.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/8794/… It is not about a legal question, but the reasons for deletion look very similar.
    – Doc Brown
    Commented Jan 17, 2019 at 9:56
  • 2
    1. The question is off-topic. 2. Your interpretation of the GPL is dubious at best. 3. None of us are lawyers. 4. Popularity is not a good metric for identifying the truth. 5. Moderation doesn't necessarily depend on answers having references, or how much time you spent researching. Commented Jan 18, 2019 at 15:08
  • For what it's worth, your interpretation of the GPL and AGPL is precisely why the LGPL was created. The LGPL is much more closely aligned with your legal viewpoint. In any case, the legal precedents for these licenses are established in courts and case law, not blogs and Q&A sites. Commented Jan 18, 2019 at 15:11
  • Let me add one thing: IMHO asking for an explanation for the deletion is perfectly understandable, fair and justified (don't get me wrong, I agree with the deletion of your answer, at least in its current form). What I disagree with are the downvotes you got for this meta question - this is IMHO really hostile, unfriendly behaviour of the community here. Guys, this is what meta is for - questions about the rules of this site, and for asking about specific issues with certain questions and answers.If you think the original answer was misleading, you had enough opportunites to downvote that.
    – Doc Brown
    Commented Jan 22, 2019 at 17:29

2 Answers 2


First of all, the question itself would be considered off topic under current rules. It is a detailed legal question about the AGPLv3 and not about really about software engineering. The question should be closed.

Nevertheless, your answer addresses this legal topic. It presents a valid opinion. It however fails to clarify what the commonly accepted interpretation is and that this opinion differs significantly. As a result, your answer is very dubious or even dangerous legal advice! To cite whatsisname in the comments:

This answer is dangerous. If you are going to make the claim that the GPL authors are wrong about how their license should and would be interpreted, you need to make it clear that's what you are saying. #

What should a moderator do when they see an answer that is highly upvoted, but is in their professional opinion dangerous? It has been seen by nearly 130k people so far, and possibly misled them to perform license violations! The deletion by Thomas Owens was a heavy handed but ethical and correct act, regardless of whether your answer happens to be ultimately correct.

The deletion did not appear in a vacuum. You were repeatedly asked in the comments by members of the community to address the discrepancy between your interpretation and the mainstream interpretation. However, your answer remained as misleading as before.

  • I make no such claim. The only author I talk about is Richard Stallman and I quote him with a statement that is compatible with my interpretation. Many people seem to ignore the "other than the making of an exact copy" clause in the AGPLv3. Commented Jan 16, 2019 at 17:02
  • I am astonished by the emphasis on "opinion" and not being a lawyer. Legal work is always opinion, nothing bad about that. And lawyers contradict each other all the time. What should be the huge benefit if a legal statement comes from a lawyer? It's important the statement is carefully argued! But licenses are specifications and programmers are skilled in understanding specifications. If important legal terms involved are subtle, yes, that's not our field. But GPLv3/AGPLv3 are not subtle wrt verbatim copies, they are quite explicit. (GPLv2 is a wholly different business!) Commented Jan 16, 2019 at 17:10
  • @LutzPrechelt This is not the place to discuss the subject of your answer. In my opinion, the deletion was a sensible moderation action regardless whether your answer turns out to be correct. It is sufficient that you are promoting an interpretation that, (1) if followed, could cause significant liabilities for third parties and (2) is not clearly marked as an opinion so that others might accidentally take the statement of this non-standard opinion as a statement of fact. Specifically, your introductory section – beyond which some people might not read – is written as a statement of fact.
    – amon
    Commented Jan 16, 2019 at 17:31
  • There is an IANAL mark in my answer. Are you seriously suggesting that moderation should be concerned with what happens when people read x% of an answer and then act? Commented Jan 16, 2019 at 17:41
  • @LutzPrechelt Your answer ranked very highly in search engines. Bad advice in such a place also reflects badly on the whole site. But yes: giving highly visible, harmful, bad advice that a reasonable reader would not be able to identify as a fringe opinion but (given the amount of votes) might misinterpret as the mainstream interpretation, that definitively has to be addressed. You did not fix this, so Thomas used his judgement and experience and decided to delete.
    – amon
    Commented Jan 16, 2019 at 17:52
  • Your answer is the licensing equivalent of a hobby electrician suggesting to fix a tripped breaker by welding a cable across it.
    – amon
    Commented Jan 16, 2019 at 17:52
  • @LutzPrechelt: maybe your answer can be saved if you remove the IANAL from the bottom and instead add a clear statement "Warning, IANAL, and this is my very personal opinion for this case" large and bold to the very first line of your answer, not somewhere down below. You should also add additional warnings at all places where the legal state is not that clear, because it is not tested in court.
    – Doc Brown
    Commented Jan 17, 2019 at 16:00

I think that amon's answer pretty much covers it, but as the moderator who deleted it, I wanted to walk through my process.

The answer was brought to the attention of the mod team by flags. At least one user thought that the post needed moderator intervention to address concerns that the community members could not handle on their own.

In response to the flag, I read the entire post as well as the comments attached to it. I also considered some metadata. The question was highly viewed (over 100,000 views over 7 years - over 14,000 views/year, which is rather high for this community). The answer was several years old (no specific view data for answers, but it was highly upvoted). When I read the answer, I noted that it does not agree with the common interpretations of the AGPL and several people had concerns as well and pointed out how the interpretations in your answer (both yours and the ones you linked to) directly conflicted with the FSF (who created the AGPL). These comments were not addressed in the answer in a manner that I would consider satisfactory to inform readers.

At the end, I had to consider my responsibilities to the community. The answer is unsafe. Although it could be correct, to the best of my knowledge and after a cursory search, the AGPL has not been tested by courts of law. The source of truth of understanding the purpose and intent of the license comes from the author of the license itself - the FSF. Answers that contradict the FSF position but don't have a higher authority are simply opinion. It is my responsibility to not only respect the work of others who have created software and then provided it under a license, but be sure that others have accurate information to do the same.

The answer that Doc Brown linked to in the comment on this question here is also relevant. As a community of professionals, we have ethical responsibilities to ourselves, each other, and various other stakeholders. The answers posted here should support and encourage ethical, responsible, professional behavior. Answers that may be construed as correct or factual but may put someone at risk don't belong here. If there were no ethical considerations, I would consider a down vote, a comment, and/or a mod notice on the post to be sufficient in cases where an answer could be unsourced or dubious, but may not lead to a reader being led down the wrong path ethically.

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