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.

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    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 Jul 13 '09 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 Jul 26 '10 at 12:27
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    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. – Michael Haren Jul 26 '10 at 12:46
  • @Graviton hey, just curious how you noticed Jeff edit? – Shadow Wizard Wearing Mask V2 May 20 '19 at 8:03
  • @ShadowWizard, I didn't. Someone voted up on my question and that's how I noticed. – Graviton May 20 '19 at 8:06
  • Oh... lol! So you can thank @Jeff for the upvote(s). ;) – Shadow Wizard Wearing Mask V2 May 20 '19 at 9:03

10 Answers 10


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.

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    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 Jun 30 '09 at 5:12
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    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 Jun 30 '09 at 22:12
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    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. Jul 2 '09 at 14:52
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    @Isaac Why would the community be lost if the code is open sourced? That makes no sense at all... – Vinko Vrsalovic ModStaff Jul 2 '09 at 19:49
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    @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 Jul 6 '09 at 18:13
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    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 Jul 24 '09 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? – Time Traveling Bobby Aug 16 '10 at 7:18
  • @TimeTravelingBobby Non-commercial or private-use-only restrictions would not make it open source. See the Open Source definition. – tricasse Dec 28 '15 at 22:14
  • @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 May 3 '19 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 May 27 '19 at 13:15

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

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    you should start commenting your code soon :) – medopal Nov 25 '09 at 4:54
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    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 Sep 20 '10 at 22:49
  • @CanSpice do you know of such a site? :) – Jarrod Dixon ModStaff Sep 21 '10 at 19:45
  • It's a useful engine to so many. Being ashamed is a terrible reason to not have it open source. We can help =) – Arc Jan 11 '11 at 16:38
  • Is still still really planned, with the new management? – Shadow Wizard Wearing Mask V2 Dec 29 '15 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. – Jarrod Dixon ModStaff Jan 4 '16 at 15:07
  • Thanks @Jarrod. So time to edit/delete Jeff answer, and mark this as status-declined, perhaps? – Shadow Wizard Wearing Mask V2 Jan 4 '16 at 15:08

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.

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    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 Jun 28 '09 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 Jun 28 '09 at 22:02
  • I agree: fragmentation = bad. Eagerly awaiting the next podcast – adamfogcreek Jun 29 '09 at 13:24
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    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. – Chris Pietschmann Jun 29 '09 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 Jul 2 '09 at 14:55

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.

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    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. – David Thornley Nov 25 '09 at 17:44

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?

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    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 Dec 29 '15 at 16:53

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?

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    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 Jun 28 '09 at 15:30
  • 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 Jun 28 '09 at 17:09
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    Their goldmine isn't just the code, it's the critical mass and community. – Dinah Jun 28 '09 at 18:13
  • 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 Jul 2 '09 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 Jul 3 '09 at 17:21
  • It depends on how customizable StackExchange is... – kanamekun Sep 10 '09 at 1:19

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.


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.

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    There are always exploits. Open source generally leads to closing them more quickly. – ceejayoz Jun 29 '09 at 0:36
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    Do a partial release to people they trust, then slowly roll out code to more and more people before a general release.. – Damien Jun 29 '09 at 9:34
  • 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). – David Thornley Nov 25 '09 at 17:46

Aside from releasing source the alternative would be to license SO. I would push for a purchase in my org.

It is a great way to organically build a knowledge base over time, and I think that piece is missing in a lot of places - especially stovepipe orgs. Given the competitive nature of the badge system it would encourage average employees to contribute their knowledge for recognition - which would help break down information barriers. It would also allow you to identify who in the organization knows about what, and which people are holding the place together.

As a programmer if I could go to a LAN instance of SO about... say accounting, ask an accounting question, and get answers from people in 4 divisions, that would be awesome.


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