I've seen quite a few questions about licensing on SO (and asked one myself, yes) and most of them seem to be closed as off-topic or at least frowned upon. So my question is, are they off-topic?

The FAQ states:

... matters that are unique to the programming profession ...

As it seems, software licensing seems to be pretty unique to the programming profession... but two other points arise as I think about it:

  • They're legal questions most of the time, but we — at least most of us — are not lawyers.
  • They have the potential to be subjective, or at least not 100% answerable.

So, do I need to close my question as off-topic?


7 Answers 7


There are (at least) three kinds of questions about licensing:

  1. Licensing of components for use in your own software. Things like GPL vs proprietary issues, redistribution, etc. These are mainly legal questions, but as it relates to actually building software it can be on topic, depending on the audience that finds your question. You need to be careful, though, because while opinionated about the subject, the audience here isn't necessarily going to give you the most accurate response. Also don't be surprised if the audience that finds your question feels that the legal issues outweigh the programming issues and decides to close it. The filters are intended to be subjective and quirky in this way.

  2. Questions about what kind of licensing you should choose for your software. These are business model and legal questions, and are definitely off-topic.

  3. Given a specific license or licensing package, questions about how to implement that in your code. These are definitely on-topic. These questions include issues like key generation/validation, enforcement, and registration, but the main thing is that they should speak to the implementation of an existing system, and not ask how to do it from scratch, not ask where to find pre-built tools or components, and not ask for advice on which kind of license to use.

  • Can somebody link to a question of type 3 or just provide a hypothetical example? Nov 18, 2010 at 18:06
  • 11
    I would argue that type three isn't even a licensing question. It's a programming question that happens to have licensing as motivating background information. Nov 19, 2010 at 6:52

You already made the point. Ask a lawyer, not a programmer. Asking a legal question on a site where the vast majority of visitors have had no formal training or experience in legal matters is asking an off-topic question. It is just as off topic as asking whether sitting in a chair for 8 hours a day while drinking lots of coffee is bad for your health. Even though that's pretty unique to the programmer profession too.

Yes, finding a site where expert lawyers (or doctors) give advice for free might be difficult. They don't tick the same way we do.

  • 4
    – IAbstract
    Nov 18, 2010 at 13:32
  • 14
    In fairness to lawyers and doctors, if they give advice for free and someone misinterprets it (or worse), the situation is more like tick... tick... tick... ka-boom.
    – Pops
    Nov 18, 2010 at 16:08
  • Those who upvoted this answer never dealt with lawyers. Jun 11, 2015 at 13:56

I wouldn't say that licensing is all together off-topic. A technical question about how to implement licensing is on-topic (just be careful, because this is flame-bait territory).

Questions about legality are off-topic, as others have already mentioned.

  • 2
    I think you mean how to implement copy protection. A license is just a piece of text, there's no associated code.
    – Ben Voigt
    Jun 19, 2012 at 18:57

The problem is that licensing often affects how software is designed and the choice of 3rd party components. Once a component has been chosen, it is often costly to change later down the line, but when the project is starting there is limited funding.

Lawyers cost a lot (more than most software licences cost) and most lawyers have no idea about software licenses.

Anyway, with open source licences it does not matter if your lawyer says your usage is okay, if “the web” decides it does not like the way you are using the open source software, that is enough to give you big problems. Likewise with Microsoft (just look at what they did to Test Driven .net).

So I think asking “what does this mean in real life” is a programming question, not a legal question. If enough other users of the software/component behave in the same way as you do, then you are most likely safe.

  • 3
    As you are phrasing it, it's a programmer question and not a programming question. So I would still say it's OT on SO. Nov 18, 2010 at 10:16
  • 2
    I like the "ideal" typo :) Nov 18, 2010 at 16:50

Legal advice should be left to lawyers. People with some basic legal information, and a bit of logic, can however read legal stuff, understand it, and discuss it. Moreover, legal issues influence programming and program design, so I think it's important to be able to discuss it.

A similar case is: of course, you get your medical advice from a licensed doctor, but then it's fine to discuss it with other people, and there are things to learn that you wouldn't learn from seing a single physician.


An example of on topic question - if you will have to throw out your code just because you used GPL sources for your commercial stuff - https://stackoverflow.com/questions/3117334/gpl-sources-include-in-commercial-php-web-service-application

  • On topic of programming, out of scope for the issue of licensing. Will you have to throw out a whole sequence in a movie because the soundtrack license and rights were not cleared?
    – random
    Jun 11, 2015 at 15:17
  • @random it is better to throw out than getting sued (or fired) and go out of budget. Jun 16, 2015 at 3:03
  • And that is why you need to consult a lawyer, not a site answered by who knows who
    – random
    Jun 16, 2015 at 12:55
  • @random if you have the money for the lawyer, you can as well outsource your programming tasks. Jun 16, 2015 at 14:44

The information is important to programmers, so it belongs on the site.

Somebody out there probably will be able to answer these questions with at least some expertise.

It's like you're saying "that stuff's for lawyers" and kind of relegating it to them, as if irrelevant to us.

Every programmer should know the law.

  • 1
    Median salary information is also important to programmers, and we DEFINITELY don't allow it.
    – Ben Voigt
    Jun 19, 2012 at 18:58
  • Well that's not allowed for a different reason. Besides the fact that it's boring, it varies too much from region to region -- it's not the type of information you should discuss, rather you should find it on a website somewhere
    – bobobobo
    Jun 21, 2012 at 1:48

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