41

On many sites, especially Stack Overflow, I can't help but notice such amazing code snippets. However, they come with a "catch" designed by the author.

With user contributions being licensed with the Creative Commons ShareAlike 3.0 License, many users try and "override" this by stating how they license the work on their profile page. For example:

All contributions that I make to this site shall be licensed under the Apache 2.0 License

This surprises me, because it seems to violate the policy of licensing, if not the Terms of Use that are present as well.

Stack Exchange User Contribution Policy

  • Is this acceptable? Are users allowed to essentially "override" and decide their own licenses, against what has been standardized by the organization?
  • 5
    Something else to consider... It is debatable wether or not a small piece of code like you might find on Stack Overflow is even eligible for copyright at all – I am not a lawyer but there is a valid argument to be made that one or two lines is not "creative" enough to be eligible for copyright. It's a thorny issue, but perhaps a better example is Twitter. News organisations post or quote entire tweets all the time, and they can do so because a tweet is too short to be eligible for copyright. On the other hand a tweet-sized haiku would be eligible for copyright and cannot be copied. – Abhi Beckert Jul 6 '15 at 22:17
  • @AbhiBeckert So you can actually see in the footer, that the user contributions are licensed, but you can check out some of the answers below, they tell you alot. The twitter analogy is good. I'm considering adding another bounty to this one now... – Zizouz212 Jul 6 '15 at 22:18
  • Agreed. But the whole copyright licensing question is rendered irrelevant if there is no copyright in the first place. – Abhi Beckert Jul 6 '15 at 22:20
  • copyright licensing? This user contribution policy actually resembles a terms of use – Zizouz212 Jul 6 '15 at 22:21
  • 1
    Under CC By-SA 3.0 if I'm working on a proprietary project and run into a problem with a simple solution (like this one: stackoverflow.com/a/31256753/19851), if I choose to implement rmaddy's solution I am required to add a line of text saying I copied his work. But under copyright law, rmaddy's solution is not eligible for copyright in the first place so I can ignore the creative commons license. However a more complicated answer will be eligible for copyright and I would have to comply with creative commons. – Abhi Beckert Jul 6 '15 at 22:34
33

It depends. For Stack Exchange: yes.

When you write something, you own the copyright, and have the right to do whatever you want with it (from a copyright perspective at least).

When you post something to some site, you usually give a license to use that material on that site, through the terms and services, or you transfer the copyright to them.

If the terms are to transfer the copyright to them, you no longer own the copyright, and you can't grant additional licenses.

If you grant them a license, it's either an exclusive license, or a non-exclusive license. If it is an exclusive license, you can't grant anyone else a license anymore.

If it is a non-exclusive license, you may still dual license your content, and make it available under some other license as well.

In the case of Stack Exchange, the terms read

You agree that all Subscriber Content that You contribute to the Network is perpetually and irrevocably licensed to Stack Exchange under the Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike license.

This means it is a non-exclusive license, and you can release your content to others under a different license as well. This seems to be the most common scenario for other sites as well, but you should always double check.

Note that this doesn't override the license. You are dual licensing your content. Per the terms and services, you have no choice but to license your work under CC-BY-SA. But you have no restriction to also license it under a different license of your choosing.

These licenses don't have to be compatible. Anyone can choose under which license they use your work, the standard StackExchange one (CC-BY-SA), or another you offer personally.

  • Also check the current discussion on code snippets posted on SE here. – vonbrand Dec 19 '15 at 22:40
  • "If the terms are to transfer the copyright to them...", this seems to be a problematic situation with multiple worldwide national laws . E.g. in Germany the copyright (Urheberrecht - "originator right") is imprescriptible, even if the author does want it - similar to human rights. An originator can only transfer licenses. Thus German judgement won't accept, although one has transferred his copyright based on other country's law. – Quasimodo's clone May 20 '16 at 9:52
19
+50

Well... it depends what you mean by override.

You can't single-license your content under a different license to CC BY-SA. When you post on Stack Exchange, you automatically grant Stack Exchange the right to distribute your content under CC BY-SA, and you get no say in the license they use.

You can, however, dual-license your work here under another license as well. You can say in your profile that you apply license X to your content as well, and then people will be able to choose which license they use when they use your work.

In the case of Stack Overflow, this may even be a good idea - CC BY-SA was not made for licensing code, so offering a different license specifically designed for code is probably a good thing.

  • Is it appropriate for a bot to be posting answers like this? – curiousdannii Jul 2 '15 at 4:00
  • @curiousdannii there is no rule against having multiple accounts, as long as an answer is good, it deserves upvotes. I'm not 100% on giving your alts bounties though. But since you lose the rep, I guess it could be okay if it doesn't happen regularly. – overactor Jul 2 '15 at 11:27
  • 1
    @curiousdannii In fact, the case is that the "bot" did not write the answer, but was rather written by a highly respected user of the site. – Zizouz212 Jul 2 '15 at 14:17
  • 6
    Sometimes bots pretend to be humans. Sometimes it's the other way around... – jkdev Oct 15 '15 at 8:53
11

Yes and no.

You can make a claim like that, but it does not override the site policy, it adds to it. In effect, it means that your code is now dual-licensed under both the CC BY-SA and the Apache license and I can choose which of the two to apply when reusing your code.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.