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The rather "famous" TOS, section 3, states:

You agree that all Subscriber Content that You contribute to the Network is perpetually and irrevocably licensed to Stack Exchange under the Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike license. You grant Stack Exchange the perpetual and irrevocable right and license to use, copy, cache, publish, display, distribute, modify, create derivative works and store such Subscriber Content and, except as otherwise set forth herein, to allow others to do so in any medium now known or hereinafter developed (“Content License”) in order to provide the Services, even if such Subscriber Content has been contributed and subsequently removed by You.

(Here is the full legal text of CC BY-SA 3.0.)

Situation 1: I very frequently see conversations that go like this:

A: ... I decided to write an answer myself pointing out the things that that answer missed. Right as I submit my answer the other answer is edited and the missing information is added, rendering my answer useless. ... So I proceeded to delete my answer only to get reputation notifications from that answer 10 minutes later. It appears that my answer was undeleted.

B: It's not your answer though. You've given the ability to share and modify it under the cc by-sa 3.0 license.

Situation 2: A user rage quits, vandalizes all posts, and is, of course, told that the proper procedure is to request disassociation, with the CC licensing terms cited as the reason.


Here's the thing: To me, there doesn't seem to be a link between the CC BY-SA licensing terms and whether or not a user can remove their own content. My interpretation varies between the above two situations:

Situation 1: A poster deletes one of their own posts in good faith.

Sure, it stinks when a good answer is deleted, but the license, as I read it, basically says that any content you post can be redistributed by anybody, and modified after redistribution, as long as attribution is given, but places no restrictions on your right to remove your own content in this manner. In particular, the license does not seem to justify the misrepresentation of a poster caused by the community undeleting a post that the poster deleted in good faith. SE themselves have the right to undelete content under the terms of Section 3 but, of course, generally doesn't take a heavy-handed approach to this for a single post being deleted for good reasons every once in a while. The licensing terms do not seem relevant here.

Situation 2: A user mass deletes all their own content

This obviously cannot be allowed. However, the reasons that it cannot be allowed, as I read it, do not seem to be encapsulated by the CC BY-SA terms. The real reason is that SE doesn't want this to happen, for various reasons that are, in reality, none of our business. This is justified by TOS section 3 (giving SE themselves the rights to do whatever they want with content as they see fit, including undeleting it which I guess falls under redistribution, and of course we as a community act to help enforce this in our support of SE's policies), but appears unrelated to CC BY-SA itself.


So, in general, my interpretation of the CC BY-SA 3.0 license is that it covers what folks can do with your content after they have read it, in particular, it covers "share", and it covers "adapt". It's TOS Section 3 that gives SE the right to do whatever they want, including undelete it. But nothing in CC BY-SA appears to have any bearing on whether or not you can delete your own content. Indeed the TOS itself makes stipulations for this:

... even if such Subscriber Content has been contributed and subsequently removed by You.

That is, you can delete your content, but deleting it has no bearing on how the information you posted is redistributed or used later (which may include SE undeleting it). And, again, of course we don't want users mass deleting all of their content, but not implicitly because of CC BY-SA (rather, SE has the right to preserve it under CC BY-SA for any reason, but those reasons are outside of CC BY-SA, and of course this is SE, not the general community), and SE themselves can revive content as they see fit under Section 3, not under CC BY-SA itself. And none of this is justification for saying "the community has undeleted your answer because it's not yours under CC BY-SA" in situation 1.


The Point

So, my main question is: What is the actual connection between self-deleting content, the TOS, and CC BY-SA?

My second question is: The line between what is technically allowed under the TOS and CC BY-SA vs. what is socially polite is rather fuzzy (for example, while SE can technically prevent/undo deletion of content, in reality nobody's actually going to do this for a reasonably deleted post here and there). Can we make this line more... concrete? Or at least put it into words?

My goals: I'm not questioning whether or not users should or should not delete their content. That's a whole different debate. But my goals here are, assuming my interpretations above are correct (and please, correct me if I'm wrong, that's part of my question):

  1. To get folks to either stop misapplying CC BY-SA as the justification for why content is undeleted by the community, especially in situation 1, or, of course, if my interpretation is way off base, to get confirmation that CC BY-SA does indeed remove the right of a user to reasonably delete their content and have it not be undeleted by the community.
  2. To clarify the differences in SE's rights vs. the community's rights in regard to undeleting content.

One of the behaviors I consistently observe but cannot explain, which I'd really like to get some clarity on, is this: Deleting posts in general is totally acceptable, it happens all the time, there's site mechanics for it, thousands of posts are deleted every day, and as a community we're totally fine with this. But, then, it seems as if as soon as the question of a specific deletion is brought up, all of a sudden it becomes "You can't control your content because of CC BY-SA."

I hope this makes sense. Also I hope I don't sound too biased, I'm actually not. I don't feel strongly either way, I'm only looking for clarity one way or the other.

Official response preferred.

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You're... conflating the system a bit.

The user isn't distributing the content, we are.

All of the content is hosted by us, on our servers. The user can delete things off their own servers all they want, but they do not have any inherent right to delete anything on ours. We even explicitly prevent deletion in some cases: authors are not allowed to delete their own question when it has upvoted, accepted, or multiple answers to it. They also can't delete their own answer if it is accepted.

So what does author deletion mean then?

Essentially, nothing. Authors deleting a post of their own means absolutely nothing, and it can be overridden at any time by staff, a moderator, or even members of the community (three 10k users can undelete a self-deleted post). We give authors the binding deletion vote because we trust them as authors. If they realize they were wrong, or their answer wasn't as relevant as they thought, or that their question just plain won't ever be useful to other users, then they're in a position to quickly remove it and pretend it never happened without having to hassle other users to remove it on their own.

The license is indeed directly relevant.

As already stated, we are the ones distributing the content on our site, and the license gives us the right to continue distributing it if we so choose. It has nothing to do with being socially polite and everything to do with whether or not the community wants to continue distributing the content here on the site. If the community doesn't care about the content, then they won't undelete it. If the community wants to continue distributing the content, then there is absolutely nothing the user can do about it (aside from removing their name from it, if they so wish).

Think of the profile as a hub.

Your confusion seems to stem more from the mix between license and copyright. The user does own the content they created, but the moment it was posted to the site it was licensed to us and began being distributed by us. Just because they never saved the content somewhere else external to our site doesn't in any way mean they are themselves distributing it. Their profile here on our site is only a convenience that allows all of the content we are currently distributing written by them to be grouped together in a fashion that allows the author and other users to find everything written by them. It is not in any way a service controlled by them.

We run into the same problem with editing.

The license explicitly allows for the works licensed to be modified as well. While a user can prevent others from modifying their work on a service they control, on their own servers, they cannot prevent other users from modifying a licensed work here on our servers being distributed by us. In the same regard, the license is what allows other users to make edits against the author's wishes, and what allows moderators to lock a post in a given state to prevent the author continuing to roll back changes. While we give the author more control over their content because they know what they meant and have more understanding of their own words, they again do not have any inherent right to control exactly what is distributed on our service.

  • In light of the first paragraph: Later on in the post when you say "the community wants to continue distributing the content", do you mean "the community wants SE to continue distributing the content"? (Btw, this is awesome, thanks, totally clear now - also that comment I removed about section 4d, I'm just going to make it its own question later.) – Jason C May 5 '17 at 18:32
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It's simple. When you click on the button to make a post, you are granting SE the rights to use your content under the terms specified in CC-BY-SA. SE just happens to be nice enough to (under certain conditions) allow you to delete your own post. However, SE can choose if and when to display your content. Just because SE can display your content under CC-BY-SA doesn't mean the must display your content under CC-BY-SA. Note that CC-BY-SA is irrevocable - that is, once you give someone the rights under that license, you cannot take the rights granted away from that person.

In Situation 1, SE has received the post under CC-BY-SA. If SE decides that the post is useful, then they have the right to undelete the post and convey it to others under the terms of the license. SE has given a subset of the community the ability to see deleted posts and undo the deletion. I would say that it is generally nice to respect the wishes of the author, but there is also a need to balance it with a public good. There's a responsibility to ensure that information is available to those who need it. This is why SE has disassociation.

Situation 2 is really no different than Situation 1, except in terms of scale. It may be that the person no longer wants to participate here or that they are unhappy. But the same rules apply - SE has a license to the content and can do what they want with it. The difference is that SE has built tools to detect and raise attention to instances where people are mass-defacing their contributions so that it can be corrected.

I think it's important to realize that the license is granted to SE, and then SE grants a license to the rest of the world. SE gives the community members the ability to do what is allowed with the content (such as undeleting deleted posts) on behalf of SE.

I do think that not only the legal terms of the license, but what the right thing to do is. And that is up to SE and/or the community to decide. It's a balancing act between doing what is legally allowed under the terms of the license versus respecting the wishes of the author. I do think that considering the greater good of sharing the information should play a big part of the decision making process.

  • Now, in situation 1, if a user deleted a post, then the community undeleted it, and the user insisted that it be deleted, is it the licensing itself that gives the community the right to say "no, sorry"? Consider that, unlike in the account deletion requests, in this case with community deletes the original author can't request attribution to be removed if the community insists on undeleting an answer, at least not without going through SE. So, unlike when SE disassociates an account, community undeleted answers can be in a situation where undesirable attribution is maintained. – Jason C May 5 '17 at 17:02
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    @JasonC It gives Stack Exchange the right to say "no, sorry". Stack Exchange (through the features of the platform) has granted the appropriate permissions to a subset of the community. I do agree that there is no good way (for example, for diamond moderators) to perform disassociation of one or more posts, which may be a good feature request if it doesn't exist already. – Thomas Owens May 5 '17 at 17:05

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