Will Stack Exchange sites always be freely accessible to active users (who contribute content to the sites in the SE network) and passive readers (who just read the sites coming from Google, for example) in the future?

Or are there some (maybe very) long-term plans to raise any paywalls around the whole SE network or certain sites of it, such that people who want to actively contribute or passively read SE sites will have to pay a certain amount of money to do so at some point in the (far) future?

I am personally very curious about this and would love to read a definitive official answer.

  • I seriously doubt this - do you have anything that sparked this question? – user306364 Oct 2 '15 at 12:17
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    @Ghost no, it came out of pure personal curiousity. I thought maybe some other people would (secretly) like to know this too. – Dilaton Oct 2 '15 at 12:20
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    Not sure why this question is getting such a negative response. I've wondered the same thing, too. In particular, the answer is not obvious (and doesn't trivially follow from the license) -- in particular, there is history where sites have been shut down and all questions and answers became no longer easily accessible to readers. It's also not clear whether there is any way to tell whether a site has gotten to the point that Stack Exchange is promising they won't do that to it in the future. The answer to this question can affect people's willingness to participate. – D.W. Oct 5 '15 at 0:52
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    So, I think this is an entirely valid and helpful question. – D.W. Oct 5 '15 at 0:53
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    @D.W. guess some people are irritated at the thought someone even doubt the fact SE is free. (I'm not one of them) – ShaWiz Oct 5 '15 at 6:25

The content on Stack Exchange is under CC BY-SA 3.0 with attribution required by default. BY = Attribution, SA = ShareAlike.

Jeff Atwood is therefore wrong by saying that "we can't put [the content] behind a paywall.", since the license doesn't specify that the use must be non-commercial. (one needs to specify NC in the Creative Commons license to prevent commercial use)

As a result, Stack Exchange has the legal right to put the content behind paywall any time it wants. (obviously this doesn't mean it will do so)

Misc details and other related information below:

From the official Creative Commons website:

enter image description here

A nice overview from Wikipedia:

enter image description here

The digital library of academic journal JSTOR is notorious for charging users to access content that is in the public domain.

PS: The Stack Exchange "requirement" of a particular type of attribution is unlikely to be enforceable, given the terms of the CC BY-SA license.

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    Them not being able to put it behind a paywall is that doing so doesn't block the content still being available outside the paywall – random Oct 4 '15 at 18:47
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    @random they are still legally able to put it behind a paywall, see JSTOR example. – Franck Dernoncourt Oct 4 '15 at 19:01
  • @random is there anything that obliges StackExchange to periodically release data dumps (and keep the already released data dumps accessible), or could the executive team in principle decide to stop releasing new and remove the already published data dumps? – Dilaton Oct 4 '15 at 20:52
  • Nobody said they weren't legally able to paywall the content. They just can't do it because it's not in their want to do so – random Oct 4 '15 at 20:55
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    @random see the definition of "can"... – Franck Dernoncourt Oct 4 '15 at 21:00
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    Follow-up question meta.stackexchange.com/q/267363/184300, as the data dumps are the only means I know of to make the content accessible outside the StackExchange sites themself ... – Dilaton Oct 4 '15 at 21:03
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    @Dilaton Thanks, so many downvotes already... :/ – Franck Dernoncourt Oct 4 '15 at 21:04
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    @FranckDernoncourt the downvotes are not unexpected, I take it easy ;-) – Dilaton Oct 4 '15 at 21:06
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    @FranckDernoncourt I'm confused. When I look at Wikipedia chart CC BY-SA is 'most open' license and can be used for 'commercially' as NC is not specified. Please explain. – HackerKarma Oct 4 '15 at 22:53
  • Okay, so technically, what you are doing is a possibility. You know what it would take to bring a paywalled version of StackExchange down? One paid user. All CC BY-SA content could be copied by that user and placed somewhere else on the internet, for free. Sure, it's possible. But lots of things are possible, and they don't always happen. – jimsug Oct 5 '15 at 0:46
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    @jimsug see my answer: "(obviously this doesn't mean it will do so)" – Franck Dernoncourt Oct 5 '15 at 0:47
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    @FranckDernoncourt Oh, I saw it. I just don't feel that "obviously this doesn't mean it will do so" captures just how commercially useless it would be. – jimsug Oct 5 '15 at 0:48
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    @jimsug I mostly wanted to correct the wrong statement from Jeff Atwood. – Franck Dernoncourt Oct 5 '15 at 0:49

The short answer is that everything you contribute is to our sites is permanently licensed under creative commons, which means we can't put it behind a paywall.

Also: we're not evil.

Jeff Atwood

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    Also - in the unlikely event of something happening where we have to shut the sites down, we provide a quarterly data-dump, just in case ;) – Oded Oct 2 '15 at 12:28
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    @Oded to play the devil's advocate, what would prevent SE from changing the type of licence they apply and/or stop releasing the data dumps, should say Jeff Atwood decide to change their business-model at some point? – Dilaton Oct 2 '15 at 12:42
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    @Dilaton - one cannot apply a different license retroactively. Not when the copyright holders isn't SE. And sure, suppose SE stops the data dumps - the current ones are hosted at archive.org - they will still deliver the latest one they have. In other words - all current user generated content that exists on the sites will always stay around. Always. And even with your hypothetical license change, that will only effect content generated after said change. – Oded Oct 2 '15 at 12:46
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    Years later, we're still upholding the "we're not evil" ideal: twitter.com/hairboat/status/646417474594938882 – Adam Lear Oct 2 '15 at 13:13
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    @AnnaLear but if you guys don't decide to be evil how can we complain about things? It's so much easier when people are evil! – enderland Oct 2 '15 at 14:15
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    Jeff is wrong: the license CC BY-SA 3.0 that Stack Exchange uses doesn't prevent from commercial use, which means the content can be put behind a paywall. – Franck Dernoncourt Oct 4 '15 at 18:26
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    @FranckDernoncourt What the license ensures is that the moment SE turns evil and puts up a paywall, someone else can just put up all the information on another site. The actual SE sites can go down, but the content will still be available no matter what SE does. – Mad Scientist Oct 4 '15 at 18:32
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    @MadScientist Yes, that's correct (assuming someone has a complete dump of Stack Exchange, and indeed Stack Exchange does distribute once in a while a dump). But Jeff's statement is wrong. – Franck Dernoncourt Oct 4 '15 at 18:37

Yes, they will.

There are - and will continue to be - some features or privileges that are only accessible to registered users, but that's not about access to content, and it's pretty obvious why that is. And that's registered, mind you, not paid.

Our whole engine is powered by the goodwill of contributors who donate time to helping others. Even if we could personally live with being the kind of people who'd refuse to share others' donations with those in need unless they pay us, I think it's pretty safe to assume the system would collapse.

And I'm aware that it's always sort of folly to promise that something will (or won't) ever happen for all eternity. Someday, it's possible that EvilCorp Executives may be standing around by my grave, laughing about my naive promises decades before they successfully wrested control of the company from Joel and Jeff's Great-Grandchildren. So I'll just speak on behalf of today's executive team here at Stack Overflow:

We neither have, nor would entertain, any plans to put our users' knowledge behind a paywall.

Good day.

  • But if this does happen you can still complain about that on Meta, paid of course.... – rene Oct 4 '15 at 17:15
  • Right, but can I still be angry about it? – Aza Oct 4 '15 at 17:40
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    @Emrakul, my wife tells me that informing someone of whether or not they should be angry tends to have the opposite effect of the one I intended, so I'll leave it to you to decide. :-P – Jaydles Oct 4 '15 at 17:42

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