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Most of questions vaguely relating to law, such as questions concerning licenses or working conditions get at least one answer which is "consult your local lawyer". Even if the question can be fairly easy answered without going into much legalese (for example just by quoting relevant fragment of the license in question).

I find these answers totally useless and not really answering question at all, yet they are very often highly up-voted. Shouldn't "answers" that are no answers be discouraged?

EDIT: for the question if it should be at all asked on StackExchange. I know of at least one SE site (Programmers), on which it's considered on topic.

And I can also give active example of such question from this very meta: Is it legal to copy Stack Overflow questions and answers? -- do you feel "consult your layer" would be better answer than one posted by Marc?

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RE: asking questions about SO on meta - you're in effect asking the source. Jeff can provide an answer that is more valid than any interpretation whatsoever, since it's his company. –  user27414 May 5 '11 at 13:44
@Jon: Company is his, but content is not. He's not a lawyer, so in your opinion he is not qualified to give legal advice on Creative Commons license. –  vartec May 5 '11 at 13:53
@vartec - If you misinterpreted the license on SE content, who would sue you? SE would. So if the CEO of SE says you're OK, you're OK. But now I'm giving legal advice, aren't I? So I guess I have to recommend you ask a lawyer if Jeff's approval on your usage of content on his site is OK. But I maintain that there's nothing wrong with Jeff providing the answer in the first place. He's not providing legal advice, he's clarifying his intent with his site. –  user27414 May 5 '11 at 13:57
I'm also going to point out that you and I are from different countries with different cultures as they apply to the law. This is a further reason why legal questions on SE are a bad idea - the answers are not applicable across international borders. The appropriateness of legal questions in the first place doesn't even travel well. –  user27414 May 5 '11 at 13:59
@Jon: "If you misinterpreted the license on SE content, who would sue you? SE would" - no, because it's not SE content. It's users' content on Creative Commons license. But I get your point, your comment is clear example how ppl can get it wrong. –  vartec May 5 '11 at 14:00
@vartec - it's about time my being wrong helped someone :) –  user27414 May 5 '11 at 14:57
@Jon: btw. my comment is not entirely correct either, but can't edit it anymore. s/"no, "/"not only, "/. –  vartec May 5 '11 at 15:25

9 Answers 9

The problem with these questions is, that we're no lawyers (or at least not all of us). We can not definitely answer these questions. Our answers could be:

  • Vague
  • Incomplete
  • Misleading

Additionally this can have a very hard impact onto someone or on a company if an assumption is made on such an answer, which turns out to be wrong in the long run.

Questions about software licensing are considered off-Topic on SO. But Programmers does accept it, and there are three proposals on Area51:

Edit: And yes, I agree that these answers are not helpful. They should be comments and the questions should either be closed, migrated or answered with a big disclaimer on top. Licensing questions are a thick gray area, as far as I can see it.

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Sub in "programmer" for "lawyer" and hopefully you'll see the flip side of the coin. –  coreyward May 6 '11 at 4:14
@coreyward: I'm sorry, I'm not familiar with the usage of sub in this context, do you mean that I should replace Lawyer with Programmer? If yes, then I don't see how this relates. SO is for specific programming questions, PR is a little bit broader and SU is dealing with generic PC questions, but there is no SE site dealing specifically with law questions (not yet). The problem with this is, that it is a very broad field and that you need to stay up to date with it as you need to with technology. But most of us do not stay up to date with the law because they don't need to. –  Time Traveling Bobby May 6 '11 at 7:08
It isn't that hard: "The problem with these questions is, that we're not developers/programmers (or at least not all of us). We can not definitely answer these questions. Our answers could be vague, incomplete, and/or misleading. [...]" –  coreyward May 6 '11 at 15:05
@coreyward: Yes, that's what the people over at SuperUser/Ask Ubuntu/Ask Different/Food and Cooking/etc. are telling people if they have a programming question and send them over to StackOverflow and Programmers. –  Time Traveling Bobby May 6 '11 at 17:21

I don't think legal questions belong on SE sites at all. If the answer is "ask a lawyer", then the question should be closed as off-topic.

And if someone needs help interpreting what a license agreement says - that's a legal question.

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Where would you ask questions about let's say applicability of GPL? –  vartec May 5 '11 at 12:47
@vartec - I would ask a lawyer. If I have a GPL question, it's either because I want to use it on my own code and I need to be clear about what that will/won't allow others to do. Or I need to clear up what I can do with GPL code. In either case, there are legal ramifications that SE users are not qualified to address. –  user27414 May 5 '11 at 12:49
@Jon: would you really waste your time and money to ask a lawyer question like "can I use GPL code in my closed-source project?" btw. most lawyers are even less qualified to answer software license questions. –  vartec May 5 '11 at 12:52
@vartec - If I have real concerns that I could wind up being sued, yes, I would. And if we're talking about a commercial product that will generate actual revenue, then it would be well worth it. If this was a hobby project and I was concerned the worst thing that would happen would be getting a legal nasty-gram, then I would risk it and skip the advice. In either case, amateur legal advice is pretty worthless. –  user27414 May 5 '11 at 12:54
@Jon's: are you serious? you'd really ask lawyer "can I use GPL code in my closed-source project?"? –  vartec May 5 '11 at 12:56
FWIW, professional legal advice is also generally pretty worthless. –  Gabe May 5 '11 at 12:56
@vartec - yes, if that was indeed my question (and assuming that reading the GPL text didn't clear it up for me). If I was legitimately concerned that using GPL code in my project could land me in court (which, but the way, is absurdly expensive), I would shell out for a lawyer well versed in software licensing. I don't see what value I would gain from asking an amateur. I would get unqualified advice and I would have no recourse if it turned out to be wrong. So what's the point? –  user27414 May 5 '11 at 13:00
@Gabe - then where do you get good legal advice? If the choices are someone who has studied law and specializes in something applicable, or some dude on the Internet... –  user27414 May 5 '11 at 13:03
@Jon: but you're contradicting yourself. If you say "assuming that reading the GPL text didn't clear it up for me", that means you allow possibility, that non-lawyer can understand a license. At the same time you're saying that only lawyers are qualified to do so. –  vartec May 5 '11 at 13:14
@vartec - I am not saying that only a lawyer can understand a license. I am saying that only a lawyer is qualified to give advice on the applications of a license. The license spells out in (not quite) plain language what is/isn't allowed. If you don't understand what it says, you need a professional who can explain it. Further, as the risks increase, your need for a lawyer increases. Like I said - I wouldn't spend anything on a lawyer for a hobby project. However, if this was a big budget project for a large corporation, then it might be worth asking even easy questions of a lawyer. –  user27414 May 5 '11 at 13:22
@vartec There is no guarantee that someone on the internet will interpret the license correctly for you. Now, granted, there is no guarantee the lawyer will be right either, but the odds of that happening are significantly lower. –  Anna Lear May 5 '11 at 13:40
@Jon: if it was bug budget project, would base any business decision on validity of answers from SE? –  vartec May 5 '11 at 13:44
@vartec - I would consider answers from SE sites for applicable decisions. I'm sure plenty of big budget projects have had coders that asked questions on SO. As business decisions go, I'm not sure there is an SE site that I would personally trust for that, but maybe I'm wrong or maybe that will change one day. And as always, Q&A sites result in advice that you may want to consider in making your decisions. –  user27414 May 5 '11 at 13:47
@Jon: My point is that having gone to law school in no way makes somebody qualified to answer any legal question, just like going to school to study computer science makes somebody qualified to answer any programming question. It may help, but what really matters is experience in the subject matter. Somebody who has no schooling could easily be a better programmer than a CS PhD, so a smart person who has studied the applicable laws and precedents could easily have better advice than somebody who just happened to go to law school. –  Gabe May 5 '11 at 15:12
@Jon's: but why bother paying a lawyer to tell you that you can't use GPL'd code in your proprietary application when any schmuck could do that? –  SamB May 10 '11 at 3:10

I'm not a big fan of an over-zealous moratorium on questions that dare tread on the hallowed grounds of "legal advice." Stack Exchange is about reaching the right kind of experts. If a legal question requires legal expertise you do not possess, just don't answer. Nobody would respond to a technical question with "Ask a C-programmer" or "Ask a Cisco Certified Network Associate." It's a non-answer saying "I don't know."

Like anything else you read on the internet, there's a degree of responsibility and caution that falls on both the askers and answerers. We're perfectly okay discussing a piece of code that could very well kill a planeload of passengers if used improperly, but ask "Is this a copyright violation", and everyone runs for cover.

Of course you shouldn't ask us for complicated legal advice that requires extravagant levels of detail that makes the question only about you. But there's an entire field of “expertise” that comes from personal experience that you are allowed to share.

Be responsible and answer the questions you know. If your answer comes from experience but not professional training, just put your answer in the proper context. IANAL.

The relative popularity of "Ask a lawyer" answers is probably akin to checking "☑ Other" when you just don't know. But keep in mind, as trite as it sounds to constantly hear "Ask a lawyer" or "Talk to your doctor" or "Seek professional advice," there are occasions where it is the only answer. But if the question is that deeply involved and localized, it should probably be closed anyway.

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I think that "You should ask a lawyer." is in part a reminder to an asker of this responsibility; it could be translated to "Bear in mind that everything you're about to read after asking advice of a bunch people you don't know should be taken with a grain of salt." Such a message should really be a comment, but the warning is more frequent and more appropriate for legal questions, because this isn't a place of legal expertise; many members have experience which can be shared, but some may just speculate, discuss expectations rather than facts, or plain old make shit up. –  Josh Caswell May 5 '11 at 17:29
-1 There's a difference between providing information, and providing advice. Lots of tv programs and ads state that they're only providing general information, not advice targeted at a particular individual. –  Andrew Grimm May 5 '11 at 23:12
These are my sentiments exactly. If we all deferred to "hire a developer" instead of providing help on StackOverflow, well, it wouldn't exist. +1 –  coreyward May 6 '11 at 4:12
But, Corey, programmers are willing to give software advice. Are lawyers willing to hand out their knowledge? That is what they make money off of, whereas programmers make money off of applying their knowledge. –  Arlen Beiler May 6 '11 at 22:46
I think the reason everyone runs for cover is because everyone is about up to their neck with copyright "junk", as they would call it. It is one of those things that prevents the web from being a complete community, and perhaps that is good. It prevents people from copying designs and making the web a better (or monotone, take your pick) place. So it can be good or bad. –  Arlen Beiler May 6 '11 at 22:53

As you said, the subject of software law is on-topic at Programmers, but even there you will see people prefacing their answer with "I'm not a lawyer". That is because they aren't and they want to protect themselves in case they're wrong.

If there is a licensing issue that the asker doesn't understand, it's possible that other people misunderstand it and give the wrong explanation. I can recall a few software law questions with answers by people who turned out to be very, very incorrect. The odds of this happening go up if the licensing question is complicated, as it tends to be with some of the gray areas of licensing.

So to me, questions that can be answered by quoting the license are welcome on Programmers. Questions that require interpreting the license in a specific, not immediately apparent situation are best left to real lawyers.

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That is because they aren't and they want to protect themselves in case they're wrong. I think these disclaimers are there to protect the questioner, not the answerer. –  Time Traveling Bobby May 5 '11 at 15:26
@Bobby Could be. I think they're there because people want to have some sort of deniability in case the question asker takes their advice, gets in trouble, and tries to recoup some losses from those who gave the advice in the first place. –  Anna Lear May 5 '11 at 15:32

The GPL in particular travels with a buzzing cloud of misinformation and disinformation spread by opponents and fanbois alike. If these questions are on-topic, you can bet that the numerical majority of answers will come from these enthusiastic sources. They don't in fact help the askers or the site. This is my prime argument for 'off-topic'. Common-sense answers are nearly guaranteed to be washed away in the tide of fudd.

The answer, 'ask a lawyer,' is often short-hand for 'The question you ask is, in fact, legally complex. It doesn't have a quick answer.'

If someone asked for a linear-time algorithm for the travelling salesman problem, would not 'there isn't one' be a valid answer? If someone asks for an informal answer to a question about the GPL, I submit that it's the same thing.

Or, via another approach, I've taken to giving answers that consist of a suggestion to read Larry Rosen's book on the subject. He is a very qualified lawyer, and his whole book is available, for free, on the interweb.

As for the original question of 'GPL in closed source,' of course I'd ask a lawyer. There are many different software usage and distribution schemes that come under the completely uninformative heading of 'closed source.' Some, even Stallman would approve. Others clearly violate the terms of the GPL, but many are somewhere in the mushy middle.

Furthermore, license violations are not a capital offense. They are not even a criminal offense. They are a civil matter. That means (a) that any court of clowns in Texas can decide anything, and (b) businesses and individuals have to make decisions about acceptable risk. If you have a lot of money on the line, you would be crazy to look here for an answer. If you have nothing to lose, well, I suppose the answers here might be a little better then haruspices.

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This is related to Is "Don't do it" a valid answer? - in this case, the "it" is getting advice from the interwebs.

It's never nice being told "don't ask that question here", but sometimes it has to be said. And it's often important enough that a comment won't do the message justice.

Edit: Closing as off-topic may be appropriate, but sometimes it takes a while (or never) for a question to get closed, let alone deleted.

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It's never nice being told "don't ask that question here", but sometimes it has to be said. Isn't that why the Off-Topic close reason exists? (Don't forget, OP asked about such answers, not such questions.) –  Time Traveling Bobby May 5 '11 at 15:27

I am of the opinion that any question which requires legal advice does not belong on Stack Exchange and should instead be closed and directed to someone who deals with this stuff all day. The opinion of a community can be wrong, and won't hold water in a court of law.

On Server Fault we tackle the issue of software licensing questions with a canonical question and answer which we close all other questions as a duplicate of. Ours is specific to licensing, but I believe this can be adapted to pretty much any topic quite easily.

We have a suitably vague CW question which "asks" the question that we usually respond with ask someone that actually knows about this stuff. You then "answer" the question with why you should ask someone that knows and why you shouldn't ask the community. This at least gives the user a bit more information about why the question isn't welcome and gives more information than simple comments can.

Get some of the 3k+ users and moderators on board, and with a bit of luck the question won't be around for too long to accumulate any ask someone else answers.

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However, the question you link to doesn't cover all possible legal issues, but rather questions related to software licensing. Even so, there is positive advice by a non-lawyer (use Free/Open Source software and don't worry about licensing), which appears legally correct. There are more and less complicated legal issues, and even in the most complicated an answer of "I think you need to consider X, so ask your lawyer" can be useful. –  David Thornley Jun 3 '11 at 17:53

Seems like the scope of answers should only consist of leads on how to come up with your own answer. Unfortunately if you are asking the question here you probably do not have the time or have exhausted most leads or searches so really 'Ask a lawyer' is the best advice, as snitty as it may seem.

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Indeed. At best, advice here is guidance on what to ask your lawyer. –  Phil Lello May 7 '11 at 16:16

Many good answers here; one point that has been missed is quite simple:

  • In some jurisdictions, 'lawyer' is a 'protected profession'
  • If you claim to be in a 'protected profession' and you're not, you're committing a crime.

Given the huge amount of professional damage bad legal advice can cause, it's an important disclaimer.

It's also important to realise that laws vary by region (and even accurate legal advice can become outdated in the lifetime of a question - DMCA related, for example)

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So you're saying that by saying eg. "you cannot publish closed-source app with GPL code in it" I'm claiming to be a lawyer? –  vartec May 7 '11 at 12:26
No, I'm saying it's best to make sure no one can imply you are. You never know how a post will get interpreted. –  Phil Lello May 7 '11 at 16:15

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