Will Stack Overflow's engine become open source one day?

Some of the answers to this question no longer apply to the current situation. In the time since the question was asked Hosted StackExchange was dropped and came back as the Enterprise Q&A product and Teams , for example.

  • 4
    I can see a very good use of this engine in professions other than computer programming: Lawyering, Medical Advise, Education...well, to be concise ANY type of counseling service. And, those communities would like a number of features that even SO would be benefited.
    – dde
    Commented Jul 13, 2009 at 4:21
  • @dde This is what StackExchange 2.0 is all about. And the benefit of new feature would feed back to other SE sites immediately and automatically.
    – malach
    Commented Jul 26, 2010 at 12:27
  • 1
    I think many commenters are underestimating how difficult it is to make a site like StackOverflow. I'm not defending either Joel or Jeff's position. I'm just saying that cloning SO is not trivial. Building a site fast, effective and deceptively simple is not easy. Sure, copying is easier than innovating, especially if you copy code instead of ideas...and most of you are right that community can't be faked, but let's give these guys a little more credit. Commented Jul 26, 2010 at 12:46
  • @Graviton hey, just curious how you noticed Jeff edit? Commented May 20, 2019 at 8:03
  • @ShadowWizard, I didn't. Someone voted up on my question and that's how I noticed.
    – Graviton
    Commented May 20, 2019 at 8:06
  • Oh... lol! So you can thank @Jeff for the upvote(s). ;) Commented May 20, 2019 at 9:03

9 Answers 9


Eventually, probably. Never.

Discussed on Podcast #60


Short version: Joel is very, very against it because he says it'll destroy any possible income from hosted Stack Overflow. I don't agree.

  • 16
    No, please not. I really would not like that because stackoverflow is not a platform it's a community and that would all be lost.
    – deleted
    Commented Jun 30, 2009 at 5:12
  • 4
    I think it would be a great example for web-development-noobs like me to see how to develop a large scale website with ASP.NET. So please do open source it.
    – Zifre
    Commented Jun 30, 2009 at 22:12
  • 6
    Just invent a license that allows programmers to get the code to do lots of interesting things and jams the cheap hosting providers who think they can sell it as a feature without writing a check to Joel.
    – Mike C.
    Commented Jul 2, 2009 at 14:52
  • 10
    @Isaac Why would the community be lost if the code is open sourced? That makes no sense at all...
    – Vinko Vrsalovic StaffMod
    Commented Jul 2, 2009 at 19:49
  • 5
    @Isaac Waller - now SO has discovered and stabilised on a set of features, it would be very easy to reproduce them. The hard work has been figuring out what the features should be, and growing the community of users during that process. So giving away the code wouldn't be giving away much. Clone SO sites were already appearing months ago (in Chinese, etc). It's easy to copy the functionality, much harder to steal the users.
    – Earwicker
    Commented Jul 6, 2009 at 18:13
  • 2
    Part of StackOverflow is that it is a extremely polished product. If you gave away the code, usually horrible clone sites would now be good.
    – deleted
    Commented Jul 24, 2009 at 20:20
  • I can remember a license which would grant you the rights of the GPL but would have non-commercial addition...can't find it, though. Maybe a modified (A)GPL (with non-commercial or private-use-only addition) would be suitable? Commented Aug 16, 2010 at 7:18
  • 1
    @TimeTravelingBobby Non-commercial or private-use-only restrictions would not make it open source. See the Open Source definition.
    – tricasse
    Commented Dec 28, 2015 at 22:14
  • 1
    @tricasse It would still be an improvement on the current situation. It's too bad so much of the open source community is so binary about licensing - "either it's [my favourite license] or it might as well be closed source!"
    – l0b0
    Commented May 3, 2019 at 22:15
  • @l0b0: The differences between non-commercial and commercial are not trivial. Wikimedia, hosting Wikipedia, relies on an army of voluntary contributors (and donators) but also has paid staff (as you must have when you're one of the world's top websites), while still being a non-profit in the US. It is commercial or not? It depends on each and every license. The open source community is picky about being free to use as they see fit, and they are rightly so, because they are mitigating a huge risk this way, when you go beyond the personal pet project. S.O. is not software for personal use!
    – tricasse
    Commented May 27, 2019 at 13:15
  • @tricasse I'm confused. How does the open-source community being picky about licenses pose a threat to SE if it went open-source?
    – Anonymous
    Commented Mar 4, 2022 at 22:55
  • @Anonymous: It doesn't pose a threat to SE for as long as forks are avoided. To be clear: ideally, SE should be open source because that's one of the best ways to ensure good quality software and give power to the users. I can understand that this is a big model change for SE nevertheless, one they might never want to risk doing.
    – tricasse
    Commented Mar 8, 2022 at 13:44
  • @tricasse I agree, but I think the mean reason is that nobody would pay for SO Teams anymore, which is really greedy if you think about it.
    – Anonymous
    Commented Mar 8, 2022 at 19:54
  • @Anonymous: I don't "nobody" would pay for SO Teams anymore. A hosted solution provided by SE is low-cost compared to an in-house solution, even if open source-based. Companies that want an in-house solution can already run any of the SE clones, and even copy SE content legally and for free if they so wish.
    – tricasse
    Commented Mar 22, 2022 at 16:49
  • 1
    @Anonymous: By in-house I meant self-hosting of course but also self-supporting (as in other open source apps you run "for free"). SO Teams Enterprise comes with hosting+support. Doing it in-house all by yourself would cost more (in $ and in risk valued as $), as with the other clones.
    – tricasse
    Commented Mar 30, 2022 at 14:03

I'm too ashamed of the code I've written for it ever to be seen by outsiders :)

  • 5
    you should start commenting your code soon :)
    – mohdajami
    Commented Nov 25, 2009 at 4:54
  • 13
    Maybe there's some site out there where you can post some of your code and ask how others in the field would write it. And if you have questions about whatever language, you could ask those. It'd be fabulous! Someone should get on that.
    – CanSpice
    Commented Sep 20, 2010 at 22:49
  • @CanSpice do you know of such a site? :) Commented Sep 21, 2010 at 19:45
  • 1
    It's a useful engine to so many. Being ashamed is a terrible reason to not have it open source. We can help =)
    – Arc
    Commented Jan 11, 2011 at 16:38
  • Is still still really planned, with the new management? Commented Dec 29, 2015 at 8:44
  • @ShadowWizard I doubt it - we'll continue to open source components, e.g. Dapper, but releasing the main site code hasn't been talked about in a while. Commented Jan 4, 2016 at 15:07

I am listening to Joel kvetch about open sourcing SO killing the revenue model for StackSexChange.com (or whatever he's going to call the hosted version) and getting fed up with his myopia. There is a very easy way for everyone to get what they want from this: specify your requirements in a new Atwood-Spolsky license and turn it loose. This way thinkerers can play with the code and learn from (and perhaps improve?) the code base, companies can install "semi-open SO" (soSO?) for internal users, hobbyists can post their own not-for-profit version for stamp collectors (or some other niche audience), and the revenue model for StacksExchange.com (or whatever Joel is going to call it) isn't harmed.

We programmers get what we want (the source code), Joel gets what he wants (his revenue stream), and the ISPs and hosting providers who get jammed can go pound sand or pay Joel a wholesale rate for using the code.

And Jeff is right: keeping the source closed will only encourage the cloners to make a competitively comparable code base over which you have no control at all. In fact, Joel's attitude on the matter has me somewhat motivated to clone the site and give it away just to show him that focusing purely on the revenue stream is the wrong way to go about it.

  • 2
    Joel is right to focus on the revenue stream; where I disagree is what's favorable to it. SO can be cloned fairly easily, so keeping the bits secret isn't all that useful. Commented Nov 25, 2009 at 17:44
  • license is not real world. will cloners with that license fully respect that license? and be really data feeders to SO? I personally think not. I think SO is better kept closed. everybody who made a real sustainable business out of code knows the risks. open source is for libraries, frameworks and so, not for established businesses.
    – Curcuma_
    Commented Nov 12, 2022 at 8:55
  • "StackSexChange.com" is a reference to the hyphen site. Commented Jan 29, 2023 at 18:26

Honestly, I don't want to see Stack Overflow clones making their path into the web. Keeping Stack Overflow engine closed would be a better idea. With intentions to create or license new clones for other communities. Just to make sure that there is just one Stack Overflow-based site for each community.

  • 14
    People can make their own and some places have already done so. If you don't like the clones, don't go to them. The web's a big place. Bad sites existing won't diminish the quality of SO.
    – Dinah
    Commented Jun 28, 2009 at 18:12
  • I'm not worried about Stackoverflow.com (the programmer site), nor Serverfault.com, I'm worried about future sites that may fragment their target communities.
    – karatchov
    Commented Jun 28, 2009 at 22:02
  • I agree: fragmentation = bad. Eagerly awaiting the next podcast Commented Jun 29, 2009 at 13:24
  • 7
    Not making it open source doesn't prevent anyone from "cloning" the site, so why not just make it open and let others use it. Commented Jun 29, 2009 at 21:40
  • Clones aren't always based off of scraped-code. Most developers here would at least begin a clone of SO simply by using SO.
    – Sampson
    Commented Jul 2, 2009 at 14:55

I am impressed that Wikipedia hasn't been mentioned yet... They opensourced without spelling doom to themselves. Not only are they OSS, they also point you to more efficient ways of downloading the whole database. And have a whole site that help people set them up.

The way I see it working is that people will go to the spin offs until the real McCoy sets up its own version in the same domain. Because of this I think one good idea for licensing is that the real Stack Overflow is allowed to take all the data off of other people's Stack Overflow's...

So if there were a dancing-Stack Overflow that got big enough that the real Stack Overflow wanted it they could just take it back.

This basically sets it up nicely for nerds to play with Stack Overflow code, allows for little sites to pop up. And in the end it results in more money than you would get if it weren't OSSed. It seems simple to me, or am I missing something?

  • 1
    Yes, but they've been asking for money for a long time. People don't clone stuff that doesn't generate money (or that requires a tremendous amount of bandwidth without revenue).
    – Dean
    Commented Dec 29, 2015 at 16:53
  • @Dean Doesn't SE make enough money from ads? And maybe if they weren't so greedy, people would donate to them.
    – Anonymous
    Commented Mar 4, 2022 at 22:48
  • why do you think they are greedy? just because the close their source and try to make a business? after the many years they were running on ads? people take anything for granted
    – Curcuma_
    Commented Nov 12, 2022 at 9:57

The data-dump was done in "6-8 weeks". There is other similar plans to come first (the hosted version of Stackoverflow), so maybe 6-8 months for that. Logically the open source version would have to come in.. err.. 6-8 years?


Didn't Joel say that he thought you guys were sitting on a gold-mine with this code? Not to be too cynical, but are you guys really just going to give that up for free?

  • 4
    many complex software packages thrive on the business model of open-source but paid-support. if you're smart & energetic enough to setup and maintain an open-source package, more power to you. Otherwise it's a great market for support services.
    – Jason S
    Commented Jun 28, 2009 at 15:30
  • 1
    I think the money is in running the actual sites. Without the sheer reach of Joel and Jeff's blogs, stackoverflow.com would probably not be nearly as successful as it is. Releasing the code would allow others to set up competing sites, but it's doubtful that would hurt the "original" sites.
    – LKM
    Commented Jun 28, 2009 at 17:09
  • 11
    Their goldmine isn't just the code, it's the critical mass and community.
    – Dinah
    Commented Jun 28, 2009 at 18:13
  • 1
    The goldmine ISN'T the code. Many developers here could replicate similar functionality - that's not the goldmine. As @Dinah pointed out, the goldmine is the content/community.
    – Sampson
    Commented Jul 2, 2009 at 14:56
  • Besides, Stack Exchange is about customization. If you needed a tailored Stackoverflow, wouldn't you go directly to the "creators", unless you are just having some fun digin' into the code?
    – perbert
    Commented Jul 3, 2009 at 17:21
  • It depends on how customizable StackExchange is...
    – kanamekun
    Commented Sep 10, 2009 at 1:19

I'm the cyber security paranoid type. I hope SO team thoroughly make sure they are not releasing info that will allow 0 day exploits.

  • 11
    There are always exploits. Open source generally leads to closing them more quickly.
    – ceejayoz
    Commented Jun 29, 2009 at 0:36
  • 6
    Do a partial release to people they trust, then slowly roll out code to more and more people before a general release..
    – Damien
    Commented Jun 29, 2009 at 9:34
  • 1
    OS makes it easier to find exploits, and also to fix them. Overall, my SWAG is that OS is likely a bit more secure, other things being equal (which they normally aren't). Commented Nov 25, 2009 at 17:46

Nah open source isn't the answer for everything.

They wrote the software, it's theirs and it works perfectly well and we are already benefiting hugely as a community using it for free! I remember what it used to be like before SO and the alternative sites are just terrible. SO totally transformed things and is just brilliant to use, and free! Go write your own if you want to setup a competing site. These guys worked damn hard, probably hugely late hours while juggling other jobs or whatever to create this. It's theirs and well deserved. Putting it out to open source would be like robbery.

Smart people can't work for free in life. If you compared SO to something in the real, physical world - it would be like the best engineering company building the Tokyo Sky Tree digital TV tower for example. Why can the engineers who build the physical tower in real life be earning millions of dollars, yet engineers who are just as smart, but built amazing "software" still have to hold a day job elsewhere just because some robbers from the open source community want to steal their efforts and replicate it elsewhere.

In order for smart people to keep on doing smart things over the very long term, there has to be an incentive at the end of the tunnel more so than just the prestige of "wow I built SO" that soon wears off if you still need to be working elsewhere at another day job to get by. And this is common place on the internet where heaps of hugely busy sites are run by guys who work for someone else 9-5.

While open source creates some amazing systems and I love it dearly, it's best suited for when the community creates the project right from the beginning - not stealing the result of someone's hard work after the whole thing is already completed and successful.


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