I’m starting to see a trend amongst websites employing free and/or open source licences, and it’s concerning. The Stack Exchange network announced a licence change for user-submitted content a week ago:

Effective today, all Subscriber Content on Stack Overflow and the Stack Exchange network will be available under the terms of version 4.0 of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA) license.

I thought I must have missed something. I’ve been involved in software licence changes before, and it’s a tedious but necessary process of notifying all the contributors and getting their approval. And this was for projects of only a few dozen people; certainly nothing at the scale of Stack Exchange.

The top voted answer by Makyen points out the obvious:

Stack Exchange doesn’t have the right to unilaterally change the license of previously submitted content.

Numerous comments to the original announcement, and other answers below, linked to Stack Exchange’s Terms of Service that grants additional rights. But that still doesn’t alter the fact Creative Commons does not permit licence changes without consent.

The Creative Commons wiki suggests two ways Stack Exchange could have arranged this:

upon upload by contributors, have a prompt box to obtain agreement to relicense previous uploads; [or] general outreach to contributors seeking agreement to upgrade.

Contrast Stack Exchange’s unilateral decision to how Wikipedia implemented Creative Commons in addition to the GNU Free Documentation License and prior versions of Creative Commons. That’s how you do it legally, while also respecting the people for whom your site wouldn’t exist without. Sure they didn’t pay you with money, but they gave you their time.

This leads me to think a few things:

  1. Licences and their implementation must be complex enough if even large websites run afoul of them;

  2. Protections granted by licences, even if well intentioned, mean little if sites like this deem them mutable, and you don’t have the legal resources to defend them. So therefore;

  3. If you want to own your own media, and how it’s distributed, you need to self-publish. As soon as you give it to another site, it can be changed. You might be fine with that, as I often am; but if you’re not, give these meat-grinder sites a hard pass.

It comes with its own set of challenges, but damn if I don’t see justifications for decentralisation and distribution of knowledge and expertise in cases like this. I also hear a little of Michael W. Lucas’s BSD-licence justification echoing in my ear for all the points, but that’s for another post.