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We've discussed "legal" questions twice before, here and here.

I'd like to drill down specifically into the "Is It Legal" questions that we often seem to receive, such as these:

Legal Lego game

How closely can a game legally resemble another?

How legal would it be to use some elements of the Half Life universe in my non comercial, indie game?

Legality of using names in a game?

How closely can a game legally resemble another?

Could I make my own pokemon game without running into a copyright issue?

I'm not questioning whether these topics are on-topic for a game development site. The boundaries of legal and ethical behaviour certainly are legitimate things that any creative professional needs to know.

What I'm questioning is whether we, as a site that builds up static knowledge as a future resource, are an appropriate place for that knowledge to be generated, stored and then provided for decades into the future to random internet strangers. Unlike the mathematics behind quaternions, laws change over time, and our answers will eventually become invalid, even if those answers were correct at the time they were posted (which doesn't even seem to be particularly common).

Are we willing to live with ourselves if someone acts on an answer we, as a site, have published -- perhaps decades earlier -- and is sued/imprisoned/etc as a result?

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    \$\begingroup\$ The bold part I don't think is particularly relevant. There are SE sites that deal with matters much more troublesome than copyright infringement issues if they don't know what they're doing. Case in point: security.stackexchange.com and parenting.stackexchange.com \$\endgroup\$ – Tetrad Feb 20 '12 at 21:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ For reference, SO doesn't allow legal questions, but Programmers does (as far as I know): meta.stackexchange.com/questions/89961/… and meta.programmers.stackexchange.com/questions/1655/… \$\endgroup\$ – Tetrad Feb 20 '12 at 21:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ With respect, Tetrad, I don't think that expressing concern about generating bad legal advice and republishing it in perpetuity is "irrelevant". \$\endgroup\$ – Trevor Powell Feb 20 '12 at 21:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ Trevor: is your concern with people giving legal advice, or with people giving legal advice you disagree with? I notice the only non-downvoted answer on the recent Blockbuster question was the 'you could in fact get sued for this' one... \$\endgroup\$ – Steven Stadnicki Feb 22 '12 at 17:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ Hi, @Steven, thanks for the question. I only downvoted the legal advice which was recommending people do something that could result in the questioner getting sued or imprisoned if the advice turned out to be wrong. ie: the "dangerous" advice. If the asker took action based on the "don't use that name" advice and the advice was wrong, the asker would not be sued; the advice was non-dangerous. Still probably incorrect and bad. But until we reach some sort of consensus on this issue, I didn't want to downvote or closevote legal questions or answers on a "policy" basis. \$\endgroup\$ – Trevor Powell Feb 22 '12 at 20:42
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Tetrad: likely SO doesn't allow legal questions because Programmers does. \$\endgroup\$ – o0'. Feb 23 '12 at 9:19
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I personally am more than happy to see legal questions providing they are directly relevant to game developers.

The idea that only lawyers can possibly have a useful opinion on law is incorrect in 2 ways: firstly, many regular citizens know how their law works, and secondly, many lawyers make mistakes anyway as nobody can possibly know every law on the statute books.

"Are we willing to live with ourselves if someone acts on an answer we, as a site, have published -- perhaps decades earlier -- and is sued/imprisoned/etc as a result?"

Yes, definitely. People need to take responsibility for the advice they accept. When they post on gamedev.stackexchange.com they know they are not asking a legal professional, but even if they were asking a legal professional, the final decision for their actions lies with them. Our best answers are timestamped, sourced with references, and backed up by the community, so the asker can make an informed decision, and what they choose is their responsibility.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1. I'm still deeply uncomfortable with the conclusion you reach, but this is really well argued. \$\endgroup\$ – Trevor Powell Feb 24 '12 at 22:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ Another +1, especially for this line: People need to take responsibility for the advice they accept. \$\endgroup\$ – Cyclops Feb 25 '12 at 12:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'd just add that there are lawyers in the gamedev community, for example on reddit: reddit.com/r/gamedev/comments/1zfrm0/… \$\endgroup\$ – MartinTeeVarga Apr 17 '14 at 14:54
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From meta.programmers.se

In the context of legal questions, common sense is always, always consult a lawyer. Asking a site devoted to non-lawyers who do not have an attorney-client relationship for definitive legal advice is obviously dangerous.

But that's not to say you can't ask about legal issues: it's akin to asking a colleague or a friend about their experiences in a similar situation.

...

I think there is always going to be a fine line between what constitutes regular, professional advice (on-topic) and what constitutes personal legal advice (off-topic). The standard should be, "would a reasonable person consider the question to be asking for personal legal advice?" If so, it's a candidate for closure.

One footnote regarding common sense: there are askers who appear to have the wrong set of expectations when asking legal questions, and both of the questions you listed appear to have this problem. A person who appears to think Programmers.SE substitutes a lawyer needs to be educated that he cannot use the answers given as a way to circumvent legal council.

To this end, it's similar to questions on Stack Overflow where someone asks how to do something insane, and the only correct answer is "Don't do that. Do X instead."

But the purpose of the Stack Exchange network is to build up questions and answers that can help others, not just the asker. So a misguided asker isn't reason enough to close a question.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ How does the "But that's not to say you can't ask about legal issues: it's akin to asking a colleague or a friend about their experiences in a similar situation." analogy hold? I though asking a questions on the stackexchange sites were supposed to be the equivalent of asking someone who is an expert in the specified niche or field? \$\endgroup\$ – ClassicThunder Feb 23 '12 at 1:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ Well ignore the "friend" bit and assume that "colleague" means someone in the same field as you are. \$\endgroup\$ – Tetrad Feb 23 '12 at 7:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ Tetrad: Care to comment about why gamedev.stackexchange.com/questions/24471/… was worthy of closing, but not gamedev.stackexchange.com/questions/1653/… ? I think I know the reason, but it'd be nice to have a mod say it explicitly, somewhere that we can link to later on (I find it interesting, though immaterial, that both have accepted upvoted answers which make the same incorrect legal claim.) \$\endgroup\$ – Trevor Powell Feb 24 '12 at 23:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ 1) That question is really old and moderation philosophies change and 2) I think "personal legal advice" for the recently closed question is different from "professional experiences and general knowledge" of the second. \$\endgroup\$ – Tetrad Feb 24 '12 at 23:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ Makes sense, Tetrad. Would it be reasonable, then, to say something like "Legal questions/answers are okay as long as they are not requesting/giving specific personal advice, but are instead dispensing concepts which -- in broad strokes -- apply to everyone?" Or would the older question also have been closed if it had been asked today? \$\endgroup\$ – Trevor Powell Feb 24 '12 at 23:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ I don't know if I'd break it down to that. I pretty much agree completely with the quote I posted in my answer. "would a reasonable person consider the question to be asking for personal legal advice?" \$\endgroup\$ – Tetrad Feb 25 '12 at 1:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm just missing the difference between gamedev.stackexchange.com/questions/24471/… (closed), and gamedev.stackexchange.com/questions/24171/… (not closed). Both were asked within the last week, and both seem to be asking for personal legal advice, from where I'm sitting? (I'm actually tempted to do heavy editing on the second, actually, to make it a generic "using copyrighted elements from another game" question, just so we can close dupes of that in future) \$\endgroup\$ – Trevor Powell Feb 25 '12 at 9:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ Again, not criticising or complaining. I'm just trying to get an idea of where we're imagining the "okay" vs. "not okay" line to be. :) \$\endgroup\$ – Trevor Powell Feb 25 '12 at 9:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ 1) One was asked before this question and the other one was asked after and 2) "Can I use these characters" is an easy question to answer ("no, don't do that"), whereas specific features are a bit murkier. \$\endgroup\$ – Tetrad Feb 25 '12 at 17:36
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Since nobody else has spoken up for the negative yet, I'll take a stab at it.

"Is this legal?" questions do not belong on gamedev.stackexchange.com. We are experts in game development. We are not qualified to publish advice about matters of eternal worldwide legality.

From meta.programmers.se

My opinion: No. They don't have a place here.

If any answer is, or should be, followed up with "... but you need to speak to a lawyer" then the answer is immediately irrelevant. A lawyer, who knows the situation/location (which potentially already makes them too localized as questions) could easily contradict everything in the answer.

All someone is saying is "I think [this], but I'm not a lawyer, so I don't actually know." which is not an answer. At best it's a hypothesis based on experience. At worst, it's bad advice that "sounds right".

From the About Stack Exchange page:

You wouldn’t shout out a calculus question in a football stadium, right? You’d go to the math department of a university. That’s why instead of allowing questions on any topic, we have brought together separate communities of experts on very specific topics.

(...)

All questions on Stack Exchange are expected to be objective and have concrete answers; we’re not a place for conversation, opinions, or socializing. We also expect questions to represent real problems, not just imponderables, hypotheticals, or requests for opinions.

  • Stack Exchange is about experts sharing their knowledge by answering questions in their fields of expertise and thereby making the Internet a better place.

  • Stack Exchange is not about random people making up answers to questions on topics about which they have no expertise, in an effort to earn popularity points, badges, and access to moderator tools.

Questions of legality do not belong on gamedev.stackexchange.com. In almost all cases they cannot be answered objectively or concretely, and they require expertise which is not possessed by professional game developers; the people we nominally want to attract to the site.

As a practical matter, we cannot provide objectively correct answers to these questions, so we should not permit them on our site. If we keep them, we are only further cluttering the Internet with bad, ill-informed, and silently USA-centric legal advice.

And we're doing it knowingly.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ No downvote comment? If you disagree with the above, I'd really be interested in the reasons. \$\endgroup\$ – Trevor Powell Feb 22 '12 at 21:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ I didn't downvote, but I will make one point. Unlike programming, it's hard to be "objectively correct" about the law. It's all about what you can prove to a judge, whether or not you have the resources to find something, and so forth. Programmers especially have a tendency to see things as a series of rules that must be followed, where potential loopholes and such could be found and used without impunity, and the legal system doesn't really work that way. \$\endgroup\$ – Tetrad Feb 23 '12 at 16:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ I completely agree with all of that, Tetrad. I imagine that everyone else does as well. I think where opinions begin to differ is on the "and so therefore..." clause which needs to follow on from that statement of fact. With some of us preferring "and so therefore we shouldn't try", and others preferring "and so therefore we should give the best answers we can, even if our answers may do harm in some instances". And, I imagine, some who have given less thought to the problem, and just want the easy rep that always comes from advising people that they probably won't get caught. \$\endgroup\$ – Trevor Powell Feb 24 '12 at 1:40
  • \$\begingroup\$ Well I don't remember any specific egregious examples of rep farming of specifically bad advice. I would imagine most people who know anything will vote those kinds of answers down in lieu of the (more correct) "that's probably a bad idea, talk to a lawyer" type of answers. \$\endgroup\$ – Tetrad Feb 24 '12 at 7:44
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For legal questions if they are general enough

This includes trademark, copyright, and patents.

I think the fact alone that the majority of undergraduate computer science and game development programs cover copyright, trademarks, and patents somewhat bring it into our realm. This site is about voting for correct answers, not determining a type of answer is wrong because of our lack of qualification. The many very useful members who are under 18 here may have a lack of qualification in general, but their experience has proved useful to others.

The voting system exists for a reason. I think we need to realize that we are deciding legal questions are off limits because of our understanding of the law is somewhat odd. We need to avoid "yes you are perfectly safe because you are not breaking copyright of X". That's given.

I learned the basics of copyright, trademarks, and patents in my computer science undergrad, why should I not share this knowledge on a site devoted to game development where it's very relevant. If my answer is wrong, there should be enough people here who also took these types of classes who can down vote me. If it's right, the answers here will likely be the only ones these members get because they can't get a lawyer, even for such trivial questions.

Maybe forcing a disclaimer would be a good idea if it's such an issue. Answering questions about our experience of the business, legal, and marketing side of game development, even though outside our expertise, is not outside our experience.

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    \$\begingroup\$ You learned the basics of copyright, trademarks, and patents. According to the laws of which jurisdiction of which country? When a poster asks a trademark question, how do you know that the laws you learned match the laws that he lives under? They are not the same across the whole world, the way that (for example) quaternion math is. How do you know that your "basics" are applicable at all, or are even still the same for you as when you learned them in your own region? Have you been taking refresher classes in law since graduation, as lawyers are required to do? \$\endgroup\$ – Trevor Powell Feb 22 '12 at 20:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ In that respect you're right, maybe a request to tell users to post which country they live when posting such experience. \$\endgroup\$ – brandon Feb 22 '12 at 20:48
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Against "Is it legal to X" questions:

I like how you spam answers with "your not a lawyer" because of your understanding of the law, nice touch. I do however agree is some respects, just not to the method of spamming answers with -1 and statements like "your not a lawyer (so youre automatically wrong in this case)."

I think the approach of saying every person that answers these legal questions is wrong is a bad idea and such tactics coming from a more veteran member is likely to turn others off from the site because it feels like naive moderation. All of that in respect, I'm just saying what spamming like that looks like for the sake of this site.

I do agree with you, just not for the same reason. The problem here isn't that there is no experience in the copyright and trademarking of games, I along with some other members likely have it and have paid people with qualifications and taken course which explain the legality of software without the legal disclaimers that you're saying are necessary. The problem is that our site as a whole is incapable of determining if the given legal advice is right or wrong. Given the requirements of a stack exchange site's success. Good questions, good answers, and good ratings. This fails the third qualification. So they don't know enough to +1 or -1.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I put two answers just to attempt to show both sides. The points contradict somewhat, but if only one of the answers is right, this is unavoidable. \$\endgroup\$ – brandon Feb 22 '12 at 14:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ I do not "spam" answers. I upvote or downvote, and I provide comments with all downvotes, as is recommended. If we have a whole group of users in a single question who are all giving the same dangerous advice, then I'm going to downvote them all for the same reason. I'm sorry if my opinion of what constitutes dangerous advice which is worthy of a downvote differs from yours, but I'm entitled to give my own downvotes based upon my own criteria. \$\endgroup\$ – Trevor Powell Feb 22 '12 at 20:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ They still look like spam to me. \$\endgroup\$ – o0'. Feb 23 '12 at 9:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ The proper response to spam is to flag it as spam, not to respond to it and thus give it further exposure. It's the little 'flag' icon under the comment upvote icon. Stackexchange, in general, has a very low tolerance for spam, and I imagine that it will quickly be cleaned up, if the moderators agree with your assessment. \$\endgroup\$ – Trevor Powell Feb 24 '12 at 1:30
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It's important to distinguish between asking legal questions and answering them. People ask them because they want to know the answer to something they don't know or understand. And given the frequency that they occur, legal questions are a fairly common part of the development process for some developers.

From that perspective, people asking questions is very legit in my mind. A question being asked frequently is a symptom of some kind of underlying condition, challenge or issue common to many. To deny people the ability to ask is to deny that there is an underlying issue they are trying to address.

Answering questions, on the other hand, is a whole different matter. That's where you get into the IANAL realm along with the "but you should really ask a lawyer before you decide" caveat. I guess that's an area I'm not sure about. It's almost like you need an official disclaimer for such answers that everyone must use.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ There are lots of commonly asked questions which we've decided don't provide lasting value to this site, though. "Which game engine should I use to make my platform game?", for example, is treated as off-topic according to current policies, even though it's an almost absurdly common question. While it's a legitimate question from the asker's point of view, it's not one to which we can provide definitive answers which will also help future visitors. \$\endgroup\$ – Trevor Powell Mar 2 '12 at 5:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ I agree Trevor. However in the case of the engine question, there's not per se a "wrong" answer. There are definitely wrong answers to legal questions, as well as right ones. \$\endgroup\$ – Tim Holt Mar 2 '12 at 16:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ That's a fair point. But I'd argue that judging from our history, our community is spectacularly bad at recognising and down-voting 'wrong' legal answers, particularly surrounding Intellectual Property laws. So the interesting question to me is: does it matter whether or not a question could be given a wrong answer, if most of the people voting are not equipped to recognise a wrong answer if/when one appears? \$\endgroup\$ – Trevor Powell Mar 2 '12 at 22:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yea that's really the catch - we don't know for sure if someone is necessarily really (legally) right or wrong with their answer. \$\endgroup\$ – Tim Holt Mar 2 '12 at 22:47
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It should be noted that providing legal advice without a license to practice law is illegal in most jurisdictions. I'm not certain whether international law has settled which jurisdiction would apply (posters, servers or site owners), however I fear that answering legal questions in any way other then a statement of the law could expose both the site and the user involved to potential criminal action in potentially three different jurisdictions (in a worst possible case scenario).

My vote would lean very much towards shutting down the type of questions - as much fun as they are for me as a law student to look at and speculate over, understanding that to answer them could do damage my future career. At the very least, the questions should be marked by a disclaimer when tagged "legal".

If not shutting them down, StackExchange almost needs to get qualified legal advice itself to see potential for exposure.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This point has been discussed before: meta.gamedev.stackexchange.com/a/284/51 I don't think there's any issue with discussing personal experience with legal problems or providing general statements about the law. The problem arises when you pose as a legal professional when you aren't one. \$\endgroup\$ – Tetrad Feb 22 '12 at 17:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ Oh, the irony, the wonderful irony. \$\endgroup\$ – o0'. Feb 23 '12 at 9:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ Any reason for the -1 such that I may come up with better answers to questions like this? \$\endgroup\$ – lochok Feb 25 '12 at 12:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ Lochok, first, because I believe this answer is wrong, or at least highly misleading - one of the issues here is whether answering questions, is legal advice. And I think the correct conclusion is that as long as the person doesn't pretend to be a lawyer, it's not legal advice - just possibly useful information regarding a legal situation, that the reader can consider as a starting point. As further proof that we're not providing legal advice illegally, the link in @Tetrad's comment, shows that Oregan specifically considers \$\endgroup\$ – Cyclops Feb 26 '12 at 13:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ "internet discussion groups" to not be violating the law. Plus, some jurisdictions (like the US, which is a fairly major part of our readership) have free-speech laws that do allow us to talk about legal issues without needing a government certification. \$\endgroup\$ – Cyclops Feb 26 '12 at 13:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ Second, as a side-note - downvoting on Meta sites isn't quite the same as a downvote on the main site. On meta, it's frequently used to indicate being opposed to a course of action - for instance, someone asks if questions of type X should be closed, someone answers "yes" and someone answers "no" - so people upvote or downvote the one they agree with. You stated that legal questions should be shut down, which I disagree with (and so voted against their being shut down). \$\endgroup\$ – Cyclops Feb 26 '12 at 13:13

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