We accept licensing questions on Ask Ubuntu. Or at least many such questions.

Here are just a few such questions that the community has embraced. (And this is just what I was able to find in under 10 seconds.)

Do we draw the line when a licensing question is about software provided in a PPA rather than one of the official software sources?

This is the question that's motivated me to ask this, but I'm interested in the general issue as well.

My feeling is that we should allow these questions for the time being. After all, we allowed the question about Internet Explorer 6! But I think we should revisit the matter if we start seeing a lot of subjective answers, bad advice, or answers lots of people think are bad advice. (So I think that particular question should not be closed, at least at this time, and if it is closed, should be reopened unless there's a consensus that it ought to stay closed.)

However, I think some people may feel more strongly, one way or the other. So I'm posting this meta question, in case we as a community really are ready to come up with a definitive consensus one way or the other. (Or in case we're not--then at least we can know the issue is controversial, and not have people thinking their view is universal.)

A few more thoughts... (now that the question has been closed...and then received some reopen votes)

Too localized?

I doubt we'd close a question about language usability in (say) Basque, as too localized. So I have a hard time seeing how a question that's only applicable to people subject to the jurisdiction of (say) the United States federal government should be considered too localized.

Off topic?

Imagine a question that asked this:

I've heard Ubuntu is a free operating system. I was in a store recently, which had Ubuntu CD's. When I took one and started to leave, the clerk reacted as though I had been shoplifting. I put the merchandise back and apologized, but now I am very confused. If an establishment offers Ubuntu CD's to the public, is it legal for them to charge for them? Would it have been okay for me to have just walked out of the store with the CD?

I could imagine such a question being closed as not constructive (though I think that would only be justified if there were good reason to think it was trolling). But that question is not off topic.

Being explicitly about whether or not some act is legal does not, by itself, make a question off-topic.

Could this be the difference?

One main difference between Is sublime legal to use? and other questions that ask about what is "legal" and "okay" but have stayed open, is that some current answers to Is sublime legal to use? say it's OK to use it without paying a license fee, but do not seem to support that position adequately.

Someone looking at the question as it is might see this as evidence that it was right to close it. But I think the reason the answers are currently lacking (or at least unbalanced) is that no new answers can be posted, because it is closed.

Personally I don't think it is offtopic, so voted for reopen –  Tachyons Oct 4 '12 at 6:49
@tachyons As have I. I would welcome it if one or more of the five people who voted to close that question were to post an answer here explaining why that question merited closing, while most licensing-related questions remain open. –  Eliah Kagan Oct 4 '12 at 6:51
+1 Good question, I cast the first close vote on that one and I hope I answered at least some of the issues you raise in my answer below. –  Tom Brossman Oct 4 '12 at 14:37
@TomBrossman Thanks. While I disagree with the question being closed and some points in your answer (I've edited my question to include this), I think the general approach your answer articulates is a good one. –  Eliah Kagan Oct 7 '12 at 13:10
On the 'too localized' issue I believe your logic is flawed. Your rebuttal references two fairly large groups (Basque + USA). Legal opinions are only going to apply to an individual and only in that individual's jurisdiction. That's quite localized. For the shoplifting scenario, you could leave it open & give a great answer linking to licensing terms that explain how & when it's fair to charge for 'free' software. This issue will probably persist as a huge 'grey area', especially after looking at how other SE sites have dealt with it. Good points though. –  Tom Brossman Oct 7 '12 at 13:50
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2 Answers

up vote 1 down vote accepted

I don't know. On one side:

  • Is a legal question answerable if you're not asking where it's legal?
  • Is it canonically answerable by anybody but a lawyer practising in that area?
  • As it stands, those assertions require somebody who is licensed to practice law in every legal municipal in the world.

But as you say, we have coped with with a number of legal questions already, and it would probably be silly to close down everything that we cannot currently answer.

I feel the answer is probably not going to as black and white as you might like. Some suggestions for best practices:

  • Licensing (including criminal copyright, surrounding tort contract law and license interpretation) is on-topic. Everything else is off-topic. Am I excluding anything important with that?
  • Questions and answers should state their jurisdiction.
  • If they don't we assume a washy-international EU/US jurisdiction but answers should still give specific answers when possible.
  • People probably aught to disclaim every answer with IANAL, or "This is by no means a professional, legal opinion. If you need one of those please seek the council of a lawyer licensed in your jurisdiction." It might be nice if the powers-that-be made it so whenever the tag was applied to a question, that text was immediately applied.

    This isn't for the liability of the answerer or the site (the legal section disclaims Stack Exchange, but arguably not the users) but more the users. People are becoming dependent on Google to make all sorts of decisions that they shouldn't be making without asking a professional. As editors and maintainers of the site, it's our job to keep them safe too if we can.

Are we required/recommended to add legal disclaimers like this one of my answers? –  hexafraction Oct 5 '12 at 11:28
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Each should be assessed individually.

Questions flat-out asking 'Is this legal?' are soliciting legal opinions and should be closed as either off-topic (As a legal matter, not an Ubuntu matter) or too localized (Legal where? And, legal for you does not mean legal for everyone, forever).

If it's something simple, and you can look up a definitive citation or answer and quote the source then go for it, it's helpful and promotes Ubuntu. You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, and you don't need a lawyer for every possible legal question.

This issue has been asked and answered opaquely on Meta SE and there is no 'black and white' rule because it's up to the community to make a subjective, case-by-case decision on questions.

The terms of service here absolve Stack Exchange but not you of any liability. See the answers here for a humorous take on what might go wrong. See the answers here for a more serious examination of the issues.

With that in mind, realize that anyone with legal experience is going to avoid giving you an answer. That leaves only people who may be ignorant of the law, or who take a casual attitude towards it, to provide you a 'quality' answer.

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