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I noticed that many are happy to have their content (questions and answers) published under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license, which was proposed recently, but received a great backlash.

The last time something similar happened was a few years back when SO tried to mix the MIT license into the (at the time) CC BY-SA 3.0 license. That proposal was rather unpopular, because it rendered things unnecessarily complex, such as the definition of code, the proposed applicant of the MIT license. But this time moving entirely towards CC BY-SA 4.0 doesn't create such a chaos, while the new license is welcomed by many. So why is the proposal still unpopular this time?

Also, the last time SE upgraded versions of the CC BY-SA license (from 2.5 to 3.0), that change was relatively uncontroversial, so why is this one more so?

  • 47
    I thought the complaints weren't "We don't like CC 4" but rather "The change you made doesn't seem to abide well with the established licensing rules and appears to be illegal". To my knowledge SE never clarified (to the public) if the change is actually legal or not. Or rather, there was a comment to the effect of "It's OK, trust us" but nothing more substantial. And that comment itself came after quite a while - in the mean time people expressed their worry about the legality of the matter quite substantially. – VLAZ Nov 4 at 17:42
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    See also Will concerns regarding the move to CC BY-SA 4.0 elicit any further dialogue from Stack Exchange, Inc.? The lack of any kind of response from SE is part of the problem here. – Frédéric Hamidi Nov 4 at 17:56
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    I also couldn't bring myself to be terribly bothered about this because a borderline negligent laissez faire attitude to licensing was baked into the place's DNA by the big man himself 😁 it wasn't the first such switch and clearly a benign one - and in case of a truly malicious license change we can always all sue them en masse... which bizarrely has become a thing now. Then again, of course, those requesting respect for proper licensing and IP aren't wrong. – Pekka supports GoFundMonica Nov 4 at 19:19
  • @VLAZ there was not even an "it's OK, trust us", presumably because that would be a false statement. – Stop Harming Monica Nov 5 at 11:18
  • @StopHarmingMonica I seem to remember a comment under some post (maybe not even in that original question) that basically said this. But I can't remember the exact formulation or how to even find it (even the question where it was located or who it was by). – VLAZ Nov 5 at 11:20
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    @VLAZ Was this the post you were thinking of? Not a comment, but "It's OK, trust us" is the impression I get from it – divibisan Nov 6 at 1:16
  • -@divibisan Yes, that is the one. fop some reason, I thought it was left as a comment. – VLAZ Nov 6 at 5:20
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As @VLAZ said, the primary concern was (and remains) the apparent illegality of the relicensing process. The license itself wasn't the problem.

This was then exacerbated by SE's lack of response to the community's concerns. In another environment, it may well not have blown up to the degree it did, but the current climate on Meta means that SE as a company has lost the trust of many of its users. The prevailing image is that the company is delivering changes hamhandedly without listening to the community, and their silence on the very specific issues raised with the relicensing appears to be another example of that lack of meaningful communication.

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    hamhandedly is one thing, legally inept is the worse part. It is disconcerting that they off-handedly implement illegal changes.This in turn leads one to assume that decisions are being made without legal advice or consideration - which would be right out of the playbook of "poor management 101". Since people here care about SE, they dislike the notion that the management is running around with teacosy's on their heads. – Reinstate Monica Nov 5 at 11:29
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For me, when SE said they were changing the license on content I'd already provided, they showed me they weren't going to do what they promised. Put simply, the license change on my content shows me I can't trust them. Failure to respond to the objection showed me that it wasn't a simple oversight. Now I both expect them to break agreements we've had, and refuse to talk about or negotiate afterwards.

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As others have said, the problem isn't the new license by itself.

These are the reasons we are complaining:

  1. Abrupt decision: in the past, changes were announced before their release, so that it was possible to discuss the proposal and provide feedback. This time, instead, the announcement came out of the blue:

    Effective today, [...]

  2. Illegal relicensing: lots of people think this change of license is illegal. This could even imply that they have already lost all rights to the entire content of the sites (!!!!!) that was posted under the previous license (that is, before 5th September 2019).

  3. Lack of response: when asked for clarifications, they haven't answered. What does it mean? I can see two possible reasons: they're guilty and they know it, and they are simply hoping that we all move on; or they just can't be bothered to give us an answer.
    Maybe both are true.

All in all, it seems they don't really care about this, as though it was a minor detail. Which is what I'd expect from your average start-up, run by amateurs. But from a company this size, with a legal office, and even hosting a site dedicated to open source projects and another one dedicated to legal matters? Seriously?

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    I see step 3 as: They are not aware this is even an issue, which is a sign of mal-management and of far worse things to come from tomorrows disastrous decisions. – Reinstate Monica Nov 5 at 11:31
  • Not the entire content. My posts have been CC-BY-SA 4.0 since the last licensing fuss. – Mark Nov 5 at 22:48
  • @Mark: you are right, I've corrected that part. – Fabio says Reinstate Monica Nov 6 at 0:46
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So why is the proposal still unpopular this time?

Because it's not a proposal.

It was done, with immediate effect, with zero consultation and zero meaningful interaction afterwards.

That is NOT OKAY.

Licences are important in our business, and SE showed an alarming and remarkable lack of comprehension of, and/or respect for, that.

That's the problem: utter contempt for their users (read: source of all their content).

CC-by-SA 4.0 itself is pretty good.

But you can't just singlehandedly decide that everybody who's contributed in the past now has their contributions licensed under something else. That's, like, literally the entire point of a licence.

  • Chris Hawkes is also unhappy about this (and unhappy about a lot of other things). – Peter Mortensen Nov 5 at 20:37
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    Who is Chris Hawkes and why is his opinion important? – Journeyman Geek Nov 6 at 8:16
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    @LightnessRaceswithMonica: It's not rude to ask who he is... And the fact that the comment with the link just sort of stated it without context seems to indicate that Peter expects people to know who this Chris is. If I posted a comment on this answer saying "My friend Bob is also unhappy about this", you'd be entirely justified in asking why I was bringing him or his opinion up in particular. (Maybe he's a famous YouTuber, maybe he just happens to summarize the issue well - only Peter can say why he chose to mention him.) – V2Blast Nov 6 at 11:36
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    @V2Blast "and why is his opinion important" is belittling and unnecessary. Imagine if you were Chris and you came and saw that. What's the purpose of the comment? What does it add? It's pure attack, no substance. I'd expect much more from a mod. – Lightness Races with Monica Nov 6 at 11:42
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    I literally have no idea who he is, and why his opinion matters to me. Is he internet famous? Is he a member of a boy band? I literally need some context here! – Journeyman Geek Nov 6 at 11:46
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Licensing is complicated enough, it's a necessary evil to understand enough of it to get around, but in the end I suspect most people really don't want to deal with the topic any more than necessary.

What this change introduces is uncertainty. There have been a number of arguments made on meta that to a non-lawyer seem plausible enough to cast doubt on whether this action by SE is on legally solid ground. I've no idea whether those arguments are any good, I'm not a lawyer. But SE is also not responding to those arguments, and isn't clarifying the legal base for the license change.

Now if I assume that SE didn't actually have the right to change the license, what exactly is the licensing state of all SE content? If I already reused content under the CC 4.0 license, but it turns out that SE wasn't legally allowed to make this license change, what rights do I actually have now? I've no idea what the answer is, and that is the scary part.

Licensing is complicated enough in the ideal case. A case where the license was changed in an illegal way is a situation that a non-lawyer can't reasonably deal with.

  • "If I already reused content under the CC 4.0 license, but it turns out that SE wasn't legally allowed to make this license change, what rights do I actually have now" -> you either have 3.0 or 4.0 rights, both of which grant you a large number of overlapping rights, so it would be extremely hard for someone to sue you over reusing the content – JonathanReez Supports Monica Nov 6 at 0:51
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    @JonathanReezSupportsMonica, that is not a given. A judge can equally well rule that the old content has become unlicensed as a result of this action. – Bart van Ingen Schenau Nov 6 at 16:19
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The biggest problem I have with the change is the communication around it. This is a direct change in the legal relationship between the users and the site: communicating the change should be the top communication priority. It should have been communicated by e-mail, blog, meta-post, and banner. I certainly haven't received an e-mail about it; the banner was used to advertise some gimmicky newsletter, but not the licence change; and I'm not even sure that there was a blog post about it. One out of four is poor.


Moreover, the meta-post was IMO badly worded. It took me at least half a dozen readings to understand that the change to 4.0 was intentional: I initially read

This change follows our last Terms Of Service (ToS) update where we inadvertently introduced a point of confusion: the new ToS links to version 4.0 of the CC-BY-SA license in support of defining the use of a Creative Commons license where the previous terms linked to version 3.0 of the license.

to say that the change to the ToS was inadvertent, but that having made it they were going to commit to it.


So with those two negative first impressions, I started reading everything I could find about it on meta. There wasn't much from SE, and that's a big strike against it. As noted in the question, we went through a big brouhaha about licence changes in 2015. SE should have learnt the lesson from that experience that licence changes create uncertainty and confusion. Even if they felt it strictly necessary to impose the change without advance warning (which in itself is problematic), the initial announcement should have made every effort to explain why relicensing old content was permitted. They still haven't explained that, despite being asked.


I think that the TL;DR would be: the reason that the change provokes strong negative reactions even from people who like the new licence is that it's yet another instance of SE's approach to communication conveying a strong subtext of "We take you lot for granted". People who contribute value expect to be valued.

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Simply because it is illegal and a breach of copyright law.

It makes it illegal for other people to use the information from Stack Exchange. There is no license change. There is data that Stack Exchange might be allowed to use according to the ToS, but if anyone else copies that information and distributes it according to the CC BY-SA 4.0 it makes them a criminal!

I do also have a preference towards getting one million dollars. If you would rob a bank and then give me one million dollars, I would still object to it.

If the information on Stack Exchange would legally be licensed as CC BY-SA 4.0, via a lawful license change, I'd like that. But that is not the situation now.

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