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On Stack Overflow, I'm a pretty frequent contributor with over 3K in reputation. Almost all of which earned by answering real user questions about Windows programming and other topics.

Last night, somone posted a question. I knew the easiest thing to do would be to direct him to an appropriate documentation page on MSDN that I thought would help. And I literally did this:

  • Copied the URL directly into the post.
  • Below the URL, copied two lines of content from that page that was relevant.
  • Small code snippit below that.

Literally, this is what the answer looked like:

This warning is automatically promoted to an error. If you wish to modify this behavior, use #pragma warning. For example, to make C4235 into a level 2 warning, use the following line of code

#pragma warning(2:4235)

I felt that by cutting and pasting a quote from the website, and attributing it with the URL was proper form. Such that it's not ambiguous where the answer originated from - both from a copyright perspective as well as a courteous to the content owner.

About an hour later, I observed two things:

  • One moderator downvoting the answer and flagging it because "Copy/pasting. Nice. Did you see "© 2011 Microsoft. All rights reserved" at the bottom of that page"

  • Another moderator deleted it with just a link to the FAQ - which says nothing about cut and paste or copyright rules.

Well that was disappoining. It wasn't like I was pasting a writeup without giving credit to the original author. Just a small quote from a well known reference site.

So here's my questions:

  1. What is the policy around answers coming from other online reference sources?

  2. Is pasting a URL to a page with an answer OK?

  3. Is pasting content from the URL OK? Even if it's attributed? Is there a proper way to attribute content when it originates from another site?

  4. Is there a proper way to attribute an answer if it originates elsewhere?

  5. Was I wrong to paste a snippet of content from MSDN, or was I wronged by aggressive moderators?

Now here's the real kicker - my day job is a software engineer at Microsoft. I am certain that my employer would not take issue at all with me helping the Windows development community by referencing pages they publish. So in some sense, the Stack Overflow communinity is just making it harder for the Windows experts to help the Windows community. It seems odd.

share|improve this question
I am not a lawyer, but I am fairly sure this falls squarely under Fair Use, in terms of attribution, the length of the material quoted, and the intended purpose of teaching. – Rick Sladkey Jul 21 '11 at 2:56
The answer has been restored, with a minor edit to clarify the citation. – Tim Post Jul 21 '11 at 3:11
I also very much disagree that copyright violation could ever be a problem here, given proper attribution. One thing to watch out for, though, is that you aren't leaving too many RTFM-style answers. (I'm not necessarily implying that this one was, just that this is something to be careful of when you're posting links to MSDN. They need to be surrounded by an explanation as well. Lots of times, users can read the documentation and still not understand what they've read.) – Cody Gray Jul 21 '11 at 3:26
Thank you to all that responded. Thank you Tim Post for the undelete. While this resolves the immediate issue, there is still a deeper problem at hand. I've observed an increasing trend in rapid-fire downvotes, flagging, and closing on posts for trivial reasons. This includes legitimate questions with poor English and partial ambiguity. To sum up, I suspect there is a culture of "robo-signing" on closures - this culture needs to be addressed. 90% of the time it's the right call, but some legit posts are getting shutdown and users are getting alienated. Thanks for listening. – Selbie Jul 21 '11 at 9:28
up vote 11 down vote accepted

I use MSDN links all the time, usually like you did along with some relevant text for the specifics of the user's problem. In fact, I just did it yesterday for an accepted answer.

I like getting MSDN links as answers because MSDN is so hard to navigate, it's one of the worst sites to find something in.

I know of no official policy against them. In fact, the current accepted answer on the question you link to, has an MSDN link. Attribution is all that's needed.

The moderator messed up, and if you can, you should flag that answer for another moderator's review.

share|improve this answer
+1: I don't see any line that could reasonably be drawn which would exclude that answer while allowing the thousands of others that quote and link to documentation. – Brad Mace Jul 21 '11 at 3:02
Thank you Lance. I flagged the deleted answer, which I suspect is how Tim caught it. Good suggestion. – Selbie Jul 21 '11 at 9:31

In my opinion an answer like that, especially if you explicitly quoted the material in the answer along with the link, would be perfectly acceptable and defensible under fair use since you only quoted a portion of the material and attributed it. I probably would have downvoted it, however, as it doesn't actually answer the question, which was how to enable 128-bit integers, not how do I get rid of the error message.

share|improve this answer
Also, there's a lot of utter crap that gets posted on SO. Something that superficially resembles crap, particularly if it was somewhat missing the point as you suggest, could easily lead to a moderator acting in haste and baleeting something that only warranted a down vote at most. – McCannot Jul 21 '11 at 3:01
@camccann - I suspect an over-reaction to a flag. It's highly unlikely that MS issued a take down notice. :-) – tvanfosson Jul 21 '11 at 3:06
Right, the irony is that it was not the best answer. I would even downvote it myself - if I could. – Selbie Jul 21 '11 at 3:06

I can see why the moderator that deleted it took the action that they did. The citation wasn't quite clear, and (on the surface) your answer seemed to depend heavily on a single link (since the citation wasn't quite clear).

I've made a minor edit and restored your answer, please make additional edits if mine were not correct.

share|improve this answer
+1 Definitely remember to use the markdown "blockquote" syntax when copying and pasting a snippet from a linked source. This makes it patently obvious what you're doing. – Cody Gray Jul 21 '11 at 3:28

That might be a one off moderator thing - I'm pretty sure citing MSDN is not copyright violation, specially if you are properly attributing it and not copy-pasting a 20 page doc.

Copyright Wiki

Copyright does not prohibit all copying or replication. In the United States, the fair use doctrine, codified by the Copyright Act of 1976 as 17 U.S.C. § 107, permits some copying and distribution without permission of the copyright holder or payment to same. The statute does not clearly define fair use, but instead gives four non-exclusive factors to consider in a fair use analysis. Those factors are:

  1. the purpose and character of the use;
  2. the nature of the copyrighted work;
  3. the amount and substantialness of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
  4. the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.
share|improve this answer

In general, an answer that consists solely of someone else's content should be avoided.

It wouldn't have taken more than a few seconds for you to paraphrase the quote or add more information:

This is actually a compiler warning, not an error, but it's reported as an error according to MSDN. If you want to use that type and get rid of the error, use the following before the line of code:

#pragma warning(2:4235)

(code source)

share|improve this answer
While the answer in question isn't a particularly good example, if a quote from an authoritative text answers the question, I see no need to paraphrase it as long as you follow the fair use guidelines, clearly mark it as a quote, and properly attribute it. In particular, questions that can be answered using official documentation benefit from quoting the document rather than paraphrasing and risking the introduction of errors. I'll grant you that it's probably a rare occurrence that a good answer would only include a quote, but it that were the case I'd be ok with it. – tvanfosson Jul 21 '11 at 6:25
@tvanfossen Exact quotes aren't much different than lmgtfy links, and duplication of content is bad for SEO, in addition to placing us in a murky copyright area. It may be counted as fair use, but when, as a whole, the stackoverflow corpus contains 20% of the information in MSDN, and further attempts to re-license it as cc-by-sa, fair use may no longer apply. If you know the material well enough to answer it why would it be necessary to copy someone else's material? Introduction of errors is a minor and rare problem. – Adam Davis Jul 21 '11 at 13:27
We'll have to agree to differ on this. I think it's almost always better to use a (short) quote if that quote says exactly what's needed rather than restate the same idea. I don't think it's the same at all as lmgtfy, which includes a degree of condescension which needn't be present with a quote/link. Again, it's probably rare that this stands alone, i.e., in all but the simplest cases you'd want some explication and, likely, an example. – tvanfosson Jul 21 '11 at 13:42
@tvan Well, we don't have to agree to differ. We could differ on agreeing to differ as well as differing on the issue at hand. This is meta, after all... – Adam Davis Jul 21 '11 at 18:38

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