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If someone makes a post on any site on the Stack Exchange Network, they grant Stack Exchange a license to (among other things) display and store the work. This license is irrevocable, even if the content is removed by the author. Stack Exchange has the work and can use* it under Creative Commons Attribute Share-Alike 3.0 Unported.

Every person who receives this content is also granted the same license. That means, when I view a post, I receive a copy under the CC BY-SA license. If I wish to use* it, I must do so under those license terms. This post makes it pretty clear that the license is granted to people who see the content.

If I make a post on Stack Exchange and then choose to delete it myself, Stack Exchange still has a license to use* it under CC BY-SA. That means that Stack Exchange can choose to undelete the post.

Stack Exchange has made a technical decision that deleted content is only visible to users with at least 10k reputation points, the site moderators, and some employees.

In this particular instance, the post was deleted and remains deleted forever. No one viewed the post prior to deletion, so no one other than Stack Exchange received a license to the content. Stack Exchange is still making a decision to display the content to a subset of individuals (10k users, mods, staff).

If I am a 10k user, a moderator, or a Stack Exchange employee and I see an interesting (but deleted) post, should I use* it under the CC BY-SA license? Note that I can, legally, use* the content as long as I adhere to the terms of the license. This is specifically a question of culture and ethics.

Does it matter if the post was self-deleted by the user, deleted by the community, or deleted by a moderator? If I participated in the deletion, does that have any impact on if I should or should not be using the content?

For the purposes of this discussion, assume that the post does not contain any content that is illegal or improperly used. The author has the right to grant a CC BY-SA to the entire work. For a discussion that does not make that assumption, see here.

Keep in mind that this is purely a Stack Exchange cultural/ethical discussion and not a legal discussion. Stack Exchange has a license to use* the work and they have granted me the work under the same license. There is a question regarding proper attribution for these posts on the Open Source Stack Exchange.


*: By "use the content", I mean "copy, redistribute, adapt, remix, transform, build upon..." and exclude the "use" that is simply using the knowledge gained from the words of a post to help me solve a problem.

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    Plot twist: What if the content was deleted because it violated somebody else's copyright, and that copyright holder did not wish to release it under cc-by-sa? – WBT Mar 11 '16 at 18:19
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    @WBT As a mod on Programmers, I know that moderators are not required to act on indications of copyright violation. Those are sent to Stack Exchange for staff to handle (there's a DMCA form for that purpose). I don't know for certain, since I can't recall it happening where I'm a mod, but I would suspect that content (and the revision history) that is removed for copyright violations would not just be deleted, but destroyed somehow. That would ensure that 10k users and mods can't see it. – Thomas Owens Mar 11 '16 at 18:19
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    If the user who posted the content later realizes their error and self-deletes it for that reason (which is everything they can do to correct the issue), or if deletion is a result of community self-policing (even if mods aren't required to act on this) perhaps even before the copyright holder issues a formal DMCA notice, there might not be a DMCA process, and if the copyright holder doesn't have 10k+ rep they have no chance to see the violation or make one. – WBT Mar 11 '16 at 18:26
  • Also of note: Your definition of "use the content" is much narrower than that phrasing implies. If, by reading a deleted post, you gain knowledge about how to solve some problem, using the knowledge to help you solve that problem is still "using the content" but not the authors' creative expression, and does not raise any concerns about copyright law that CC-BY-SA applies to. – WBT Mar 11 '16 at 18:26
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    @WBT The issue of self-deleting improperly used copyrighted material is beyond the scope of this question, but I think it is another interesting case. If the copyright holder can't find the content, that poses an interesting problem for the 10k users and mods on a site who can see the content. Also, by "use the content", I mean "copy, redistribute, adapt, remix, transform, build upon..." - the activities that would trigger the clauses of the license. Me reading a post and solving a problem doesn't necessarily mean I've done anything with the work. – Thomas Owens Mar 11 '16 at 18:30
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    I never really got any official answer from my question about attribution: How does the Creative Commons license affect deleted content? – animuson Mar 11 '16 at 19:05
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    @animuson My question on Open Source answers that. It also contradicts some of the answers on comments on your question, along with what may be an official answer on this other question. – Thomas Owens Mar 11 '16 at 19:08
  • "If I am a 10k user, a moderator, or a Stack Exchange employee and I see an interesting (but deleted) post..." - Doesn't that imply that you received the license? SE used the content. They chose to publish it to only those users that have 10K (or mod/employee privileges). – Andy Mar 11 '16 at 19:24
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    @Andy Legally, yes, I have received the license. This question is exclusively a cultural/ethical/moral discussion. Should 10k users and moderators who have access to deleted content (and therefore receive a license to it) actually use that content? – Thomas Owens Mar 11 '16 at 19:25
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Since you asked about culture: You should generally be reluctant to re-distribute or re-publish self-deleted answers. Allowing people to delete their own answer is a safeguard that makes it "safe" to post answers. Override someone's wishes by re-publishing their self-deleted answer is... well, it seems impolite to me, and not something we should generally encourage. It's a matter of courtesy and consideration: if someone deletes their answer, the presumption should be that they had a reason to do that, and you should be reluctant to override their choice unilaterally on your own.

I make the argument in a bit more detail here.

Note: I'm commenting on what we ought to do, as a matter of values, not on what copyright requires. Copyright may well allow it, but not everything that's legal is beneficial or good to encourage.

  • Regarding overridding someone's wishes with deleted answers, if enough 10k users vote, I believe that a self-deletion can be overridden by the community. Deleting too many posts also triggers an automatic flag for moderators and good, useful posts can be undeleted. Posts can be disassociated from their author if they are worth keeping, but the author doesn't want his or her user name associated with the post. This is what the culture is today. I have undone deletions of good content on Programmers and would vote to undelete good content anywhere I had the rights to. – Thomas Owens Mar 12 '16 at 15:32
  • @ThomasOwens, self-vandalism (going on a self-deletion spree) is a special case. Yes, the system provides a mechanism to undelete self-deleted posts, but that's a mechanism (and one that I think should be used sparingly, when it comes to self-deleted answers) -- I'm describing values and what I think people should do, not what they can do. Anyway, you asked about culture and ethics and morals, and I shared my personal view; if you have a different one, that's fine and I respect that. – D.W. Mar 12 '16 at 18:19
  • Your view makes sense. However, there's often no reason for deletion visible to anyone (10k user or mod). I'm almost wondering if allowing 10k users to see deleted posts, or at least self-deleted posts, isn't a good idea. It's one thing to be able to review community or moderator actions and voice a vote, but another to be able to override an author's intention. – Thomas Owens Mar 12 '16 at 18:23
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    Personally I would not want to lose the ability to see deleted content. I find it to be a crucial tool at our level of moderation for gauging the full history of a page. – Lightness Races in Orbit Mar 15 '16 at 18:39

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