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Questions about the GPL are common. See this recent example. Dealing with flossy licenses seems to me to be a common issue for actual programmers, and sending all such questioners off with a 'not programming related' flea in their ear seems somewhat hard-hearted -- in spite of the fact that IANAL is the relevant sentiment. Heck, I voted to close this one. Is there some possible middle ground to allow thoughtful answers from people who have enough knowledge to make some reliable statements, however hedged about with disclaimers?

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3 Answers 3

up vote 4 down vote accepted

How do you want to make sure, that these statements are reliable? I think, you can't and that' the point.

They should ask a lawyer. The next best thing would be pointing them to a lawyer's site where this stuff can be discussed. Don't know if something reliable already exists.

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How are we sure that any statement in an answer on SO is reliable? Maybe because we have a giant population of people to vote? I guess I'm suspecting that many high-rep SO denizens have sat in a room with a lawyer and had the constraints of the GPL or ASL or BSD license explained to them? –  Rosinante Dec 26 '09 at 14:07
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I don't suspect that. I've read some licenses, including GPL. I haven't bothered yet asking a lawyer. What I have understood is good enough for me to go on, but really, I do not want to give any advice. If the question is about programming, it is much easier to check, if the answer is working or not. It's more deterministic, even if debatable. And it hurts less, if you are wrong. Accepting the wrong legal advice (and I do not mean the green check mark) could really piss you off ;) –  Ladybug Killer Dec 26 '09 at 14:16
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@bmargulies: if I tell someone to call an API incorrectly, they can try it out and when it fails come back and down-vote me. My wrong answer cost them a few minutes of their life, and a tiny bit of frustration. Getting sued will probably waste far more time and money, and that eventual down-vote really isn't gonna make up for it. Furthermore... there are some good explanations out on the 'Net. And there are also some popular misconceptions that keep getting repeated because they appeal to what some proponents / opponents want to believe. Probably don't need to continue this battle on SO... –  Shogging through the snow Dec 26 '09 at 16:43
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@Shog9 well, then, I could live with a convention of putting a link to one reasonable explanation into a comment and closing, which feels a lot friendlier than 'go hire lawyer'. –  Rosinante Dec 26 '09 at 18:05
    
Well I guess FSF should just put up a page saying "ask a lawyer" in big letters then, instead of a GPL FAQ. (If I'm sounding snarky, it's because I just had a GPL question closed under me just before finishing an answer.) –  wcoenen Mar 22 '11 at 0:12
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@wcoenen The FSF benefits from the services of Eben Moglen, Professor of Law at Columbia University, to produce their legal advice. There's an incentive for the FSF to get it right that does not exist for people answering on SE sites. –  Louis Mar 19 at 11:17

Categorising these question as "not programming related" seems to me a little incorrect - yes this is strictly speaking a legal question, however the question of "can I use * " is one that a large number of developers will face, and also one that's not likely to be answered satisfactory on a legal site (if such sites even exist!)  

Obviously these people should always seek legal advice before releasing a product, however for many people: who are just starting projects:

  • This isn't really an option due to limited startup funds
  • All they are after is a rough idea of what the likely implications are, before they become too invested
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The problem is, it doesn't really matter what Folks on The Internet think. In the case of the example listed above, the question becomes: "Did the model authors realize they were using a source license for data, what did they intend for that license to mean, and will they give you trouble later on if they don't like how you used their models?" - in other words, it's not a question that you or I have any business answering. If you don't want to get a lawyer involved, writing the authors and asking their permission would be a good (and, let's face it, polite) way to handle the situation... –  Shogging through the snow Dec 27 '09 at 2:52
    
@Shog9: What are these "source" and "data" things? –  SamB Nov 30 '10 at 21:32

Where I work every shippable product must go through rigorous (and painful) process of vetting to ensure it does not violate any open source (and commercial) licenses. One of the things I learned in the process is that what a lawyer will tell you is legal and how the open source community expects its license to be respected are not the same thing.
Generally, the community's interpretation of its open source license will have higher/restrictive expectations even they might not be able to enforce these expectations in a court of law. For a company, these expectations are also a serious consideration (read: public image).
Therefore, I would like StackOverflow to reconsider its stance on discussions regarding open source licenses:

  • OS licensing are a community consensus "thing" and not just a legal issue
  • It would be informative to know what lawyers are telling their engineering departments in other companies.
  • It would be informative to know how some companies are negotiating "expectations" vs. "legally enforceable" (I understand this issue is still evolving)

As a community of programmers who use and release code under open source licenses, StackOverflow should reconsider its position on questions on this issue.

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