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There's a problem with how the Stack Exchange terms of service are phrased. Currently, they include the following paragraph:

In the event that You post or otherwise use Subscriber Content outside of the Network or Services, whether such Subscriber Content was created by You or others, You agree that You will follow the attribution rules of the Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike license as follows:

If interpreted literally, it says that if you use Subscriber Content (i.e., material contributed by users, such as MO questions and answers) anywhere else, then you must follow the attribution rules of the CC BY-SA license, regardless of whether the content is also available under another license. In particular, it specifically says this applies to your own contributions, and it seemingly forbids you to re-use them elsewhere without following the CC BY-SA attribution rules (although, as the copyright owner, you would normally be free to ignore these rules).

The wording is a little ambiguous, so this may not be the only possible interpretation, but it's certainly not clear that it means anything else.

This came up before, and the outcome was that the literal interpretation is not what Stack Exchange intends. Specifically, they provided a link to this answer, which says that you can do whatever you want with your own contributions (release them under a different license in addition to the CC BY-SA license, put them in the public domain, etc.).

Everyone seems to be in agreement about what should be allowed, but the terms of service should be fixed to reflect this consensus. Right now, they are unclear or misleading, and that is itself a problem even if nobody intends to enforce a literal interpretation.

I'm of course not a lawyer, so my phrasing should not be used without confirmation that it means what I think it does, but I'd propose replacing the paragraph quoted above with this one:

In the event that You post or otherwise use Subscriber Content outside of the Network or Services under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike license, You agree that You will follow the attribution rules of that license as follows:

In other words, the terms of service should specify the attribution rules for the CC BY-SA license, without ruling out the possibility that re-using content might sometimes be allowed on other grounds as well.

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  • $\begingroup$ I've forwarded this to our community team. Please try to use bugs for development issues, this clearly has to go through legal first :-) $\endgroup$ – Sklivvz Oct 3 '13 at 12:30
  • $\begingroup$ Checking on this .... $\endgroup$ – Tim Post Oct 3 '13 at 12:36
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    $\begingroup$ @Sklivvz: How should we tag documentation bugs then? They're legitimate bugs, regardless of who or what is involved in checking or fixing it. $\endgroup$ – François G. Dorais Oct 3 '13 at 12:40
  • $\begingroup$ It's an issue with legal terms. As such you are probably better off using the contact us form linked in the footer (no need to do this now, I've contacted the right people directly). $\endgroup$ – Sklivvz Oct 3 '13 at 12:59
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    $\begingroup$ @Sklivvz: My question is about the appropriate tag for this. If it's not a bug then what is it? $\endgroup$ – François G. Dorais Oct 3 '13 at 13:07
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Update: We didn't just cut it from the TOS. Given that the old wording understandably concerned people, we wanted to be crystal clear, so we literally reversed it.

The old phrase:

whether such Subscriber Content was created by You or others,

has been changed to:

with the exception of content entirely created by You,

We could have just cut it, but wanted to make it explicitly clear that users can re-post their own content elsewhere as they see fit.

Thanks for bringing this to our intention - the language there wasn't reflective of what we intended. (I'll resist the urge to blame an overly protective lawyer, since I literally don't know who drafted it back then, but it's not a fit for our philosophy, so it's gone.)


This same issue is discussed from a network-wide perspective in this post on Meta.SO.

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    $\begingroup$ Yes, and the related issue of whether you can authorize other users to use your content under a more permissive license. (Of course you must license it under CC BY-SA as well, but that's not an exclusive license.) Thanks! $\endgroup$ – Henry Cohn Oct 3 '13 at 14:16
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, this is merely a documentation bug where the text could be interpreted differently than intended. $\endgroup$ – François G. Dorais Oct 3 '13 at 14:26
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    $\begingroup$ That word "could" you keep using looks like cover-your-ass legalese to me. I don't see any other possible interpretation of that paragraph. So, in case our answers get into the records somehow, as a user of the site my answer to your clarification request is: no, the issue is not that the language could be read in that way; it is that the paragraph means exactly what is written in it, and we users find that overly restrictive. $\endgroup$ – Federico Poloni Oct 14 '13 at 10:16
  • $\begingroup$ Indeed, the language could be read that way, and in fact I struggle to see any other way to read it. $\endgroup$ – TRiG Oct 28 '13 at 15:55
  • $\begingroup$ @FedericoPoloni, I hear you. To be clear, I'm using it because we don't intend it to mean that. More importantly, we're now actively looking into how to remove or edit that line to eliminate this concern. $\endgroup$ – Jaydles Oct 28 '13 at 16:01
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    $\begingroup$ Thanks! There's still a technicality, though: the revised wording lets you use your own content elsewhere, but it doesn't seem to let you authorize other people to do so. (For example, even if you explicitly place an answer in the public domain, it would be a TOS violation for someone else to use it without following the CC BY-SA attribution rules. Copyright law would have no problem with this reuse, but the terms of service impose additional restrictions.) $\endgroup$ – Henry Cohn Nov 29 '13 at 6:14

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