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The question Are the title and author of a song protected by copyright? is written as "I am doing X, is that legal". The actual question is a basic principle of copyright law, and in no way requires giving specific legal advice, and indeed does not depend on even the level of detail given in the question.

Nevertheless, this question has attracted three close votes on the grounds of asking for specific legal advice, and one suggestion by an experienced user that it be rewritten to be more generic. It seems to me that users should know better than to VTC on a question of this sort, and some are all too ready to VTC on any question that lists details in the first person. I think this misunderstands the policy, and does not help the site or its users.

Is it appropriate to close, or vote to close, questions phrased in an 'I did X is that legal?" or 'I want do do/plan to do X, will there be legal problems?" sort of way? Do such questions need to be edited to make them acceptable? If so, should users edit them rather than using a VTC? When the actual legal issue is clear, does the first-person phrasing matter?

(Note, the link now goes to a revised version of the question. Look at the revision history for the original version.)

New instance:

An additional example: Is this copyright or am I allowed to have this in my math textbook?

Again a poster has describe a proposed activity and asks if it is legal. Again the answer is basic law, with no lawyer needed for a good answer. Again the poster has not asked "what should I do?" but rather "is this illegal?". Two users have so far VTC this as a RSLA. Again I disagree. I hope for addition discussion of this new example.

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  • Is this a meta.law.SE question about a general abuse of this reason for closing or are you asking about this specific question on law.SE? In other words, would it be accurate to add the "specific-question" tag to this meta question? – grovkin Feb 12 at 20:34
  • @grovkin I intend to use this specific question as an example, but i have a more general point in mind as well. I have noticed a number of questions recently which attracted close votes for "specific legal advice" that it seemed to me did not need to be closed, in some cases after an edit. I could attempt to add links so other such questions if that would be helpful. – David Siegel Feb 12 at 20:47
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    I've had people VTC my questions for that reason even when I have "the following is hypothetical" disclaimers and use names that are clearly examples. I do think people over-use this close reason. – forest Feb 14 at 23:59
  • A hypothetical question can still ask for legal advice. If one writes "Hypothetically, if Bob shot Alice, but the police haven't found the gun because he threw it in the river, what should Bob say to the police if they interview him?" that's still asking for legal advice, despite me having completely invented that situation just now. It's not a question about what the law is or how some part of the legal system works, it's a question about what a person should do. – Ryan M Feb 18 at 3:53
  • @Ryan, yes, your example is RSLA. But neither of the posts linked from the question are about what a person should do. bath are "A person has done (or may do) X. Is that legal?" IMO that makes a significant difference. I am not sure about the posts user forest refers to. – David Siegel Feb 18 at 3:59
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These sorts of questions should be edited to remove requests for legal advice

...but without such edits, it's off-topic (though it's a closer call than a lot of the ones we see).

This question contains phrases like:

what information can I show without risking of being sued?

This is clearly a request for legal advice, because answering it would involve assessing risks and providing advice specific to that person's situation about what they should do to avoid the risk of being sued (which is a very different question than what the law is).

However, there are also questions in it about the law that can be answered without giving specific legal advice, such as whether the combination of title and author is protected by copyright.

Personally, I prefer to edit questions to salvage them where I can. I've now edited the question accordingly, and voted to Leave Open after having done so.

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I agree that the particular question does not clearly ask for legal advice, but it also is possible to interpret it as such a request. My guess is that the OP does actually want to know legal facts that could be applied to his personal interest, as is the case with the majority of LSE questions. The official policy, written at the start of LSE's existence, offers operational tests for "being a request for advice", which I also disagree with for a fundamental reason: That reason is that it doesn't say what it means to be a "request for legal advice".

"Legal advice" is a request for a recommended action, based on professional knowledge of the law and a study of an individual's circumstances. The one diagnostic proposed in the diagnostic list that is strongly indicative of "a request for legal advice" is asking "What should I do?". The remainder of the diagnostics don't constitute proof of the act of "requesting legal advice", they are evidence of "having a personal interest in a legal question". The overwhelming majority of questions asked here, as asked, are inappropriate for a purely academic research venue – but SE is not a purely academic research venue, in fact it is "required" by SE that questions be practical and issues that you "actually face".

I have argued here (somewhere) that answers should not give legal advice, which puts the burden on the answerer to restrict what they say so as to avoid saying "You should do this", or "If you do that, you are legally safe". Since "closing" is about the questions, that means that a question that can only be answered by giving legal advice should clearly be closed. However, the way the close-reason seems to be interpreted (by some statistical margin) is as a judgment of a person's subjective interest in asking a question. If a question is sufficiently specific that it could lead to an answer applicable to the OPs personal interest, that does, by some standards, constitute a request for legal advice. I just don't agree with that standard.

I don't see an obvious alternative to the current guideline. The fundamental question is, what is the "purpose" of Law SE (compare that to Superuser, or other SEs)? Our guidance simply says "You should only ask practical, answerable questions and questions about general legal information", which doesn't distinguish asking legal advice from asking abstract academic questions like a law student might ask (we also get those and there have been expressions of concern over allowing such questions).

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  • "Legal advice" is not limited to recommended course of action. Please, see my comment under David's answer. – grovkin Feb 16 at 13:21
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    As for the general SE guidance that questions have to be about issues which people actually face, I don't think that's relevant to the sites which are experimental and which not dedicated to technical or explicitly rigorously academic issue. For example, what issues do people face when they ask question about science fiction? The guidance is apropos to exclude questions like "why doesn't computer language X have a feature Y." This is done because it's more constructive to ask the question "how does one do Y in the language X?" – grovkin Feb 16 at 13:27
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    If the same restrictions were enforced on law.SE, it would be limited to questions such as "what forms do I need to file to register a corporation in California?" – grovkin Feb 16 at 13:29
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Obviously, I think that the linked question, and others like it, should not be closed. The poster of the linked question, and the posters of similar questions are not asking "what should I do?" Rather, the question is "Is this thing I want to do (or have done) legal? What are the legal issues with it?" The details, which may or may not be a description of a real-life issue, only serve tom illustrate the legal issue involved.

I think that some users are too ready to VTC when an issue like this comes up, which is a general legal issue presented in specific terms. I think we should more clearly understand that such questions are not requests for specific legal advice, in the sense that our policy makes off-topic.

To be clear: my argument is not "This question is off-topic, but we should make an exception and answer it anyway". My argument is that the linked question, and question like it, are not off topic in the fist place, and do not need to be either closed or edited.

However, anyone who thinks that such a question is off-topic should seriously consider editing to make it on-topic rather than voting to close. It takes actions by multiple users (five in most cases) to close a question, while any user with enough rep to edit may do so in a single action, which often will not take long. I have done so in many cases.

The policy seems to be spelled out in Policy for questions that clearly ask for specific legal advice. In the accepted answer, it is said that questions that exhibit the following are likely to be requests for specific legal advice:

  • They use pronouns that indicate a personal relationship
    "My mother was involved in an accident around the corner from my house..."
  • They contain highly emotive language
  • They explicitly ask "What should I do?" or something similar in the question
  • The only answer that you could safely give is "You should engage the services of a lawyer/attorney"

In the linked question an I-pronoun is used. But I see no "emotive language". I see no "what should I do?" or similar question. I see "What may I do legally?", which is just a way to ask "what is the law". There is no need to consult a lawyer to answer the question, and two users found it perfectly possible to give an answer other than to consult a lawyer.

The policy suggests that multiple items from the above list often indicate a question that violates policy. Here I see only one, and perhaps the least important. Bryon d that the policy says:

If you can edit the question to make it a question that asks for general legal information while preserving the original author's meaning, then you should edit rather than close.

But in the linked case, several people voted to close rather than editing.

Edit

Pretty much the same reasoning applies to the second example.

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    As Ryan's answer points out, in order for a response to constitute legal advice, it doesn't have to tell someone what to do. Simply estimating legal risks is enough. And in the same vein, asking for an estimate of legal risks is asking for a legal advice. To paraphrase what I heard Dershowitz say in an interview recently, a lawyer's job is not to tell his client what a court should do, but what it is likely to do. It is true that a person asking a question may not realize this, but making it clear to them can be resolved in comments, or maybe in more permanent site guidelines. – grovkin Feb 16 at 13:10
  • @grovkin I disagree with that standard, at least if stated that broadly. Most answers on this site are predicting what a court is likely to do in given circumstances, including most pure hypotheticals. Many are assessing legal risk to a degree. Also the "what should I do" standard for RSLA seems long set here, and should not be changed casually.I much prefer the answer of user6726. – David Siegel Feb 16 at 15:00
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As written, they are both off-topic

Whether a question is a request for legal advice or not is a function of the question, not the answer.

For example:

  1. I have been charged with X. What's going to happen to me?
  2. If a person has been charged with X, what is the legal procedure and likely consequences?

Have the same basic answer. However, 1. is clearly a request for legal advice and the other isn't.

Now, 1. can be edited into 2. but editing is a privilige, not an obligation. Some users may, out of the goodness of their hearts, fix the OP's question; others will VTC and move on - both types of users are using the site correctly.

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As written, the question is off-topic. The fact that it can be made generic, does not mean it is generic.

When a question is off-topic and requires changes, it must be closed until those changes are made.

That is the entire point of closure, as opposed to deletion - to prevent answers from attempting to respond in a way that is outside the scope of the site, so that the question can be repaired without wasting the effort of answerers or causing confusion when those answers no longer apply.

Once corrected, the question can then be reopened.

This is the universal standard on Stack Exchange, it is the exact purpose of closure and reopening, and once again, we are expected to create some new policy or method that

  1. goes against the existing functionality

  2. is unnecessary when network policy already exists

Instead of being fools and fighting to keep things open when they should not, use the tools we already have - closure and editing and reopening - to create a Q&A that is helpful in the future, not yet another specific case of the same things we've answered dozens of times before.

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    You say that "as written the question is off topic." I disagree. Just how is it off-topic, please? What policy does it violate, and how does it violate that policy? Obviously there were not 5 votes to close the question, so not everyone agreed with you. – David Siegel Feb 12 at 23:53
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    Using the slow traffic of the site and the common delay in closing most questions to then make a populist argument only makes you look foolish, the question hasn't been up for half a day yet, and still has more VTC than questions even more blatant in being off-topic. The question refers in several places to performing a task for which the asker seeks advice on whether their plans are accordance with the law; you know perfectly well the policy on RSLA. – Nij Feb 13 at 2:49
  • I think that I know the policy on RSLA, yes. To the best of my understanding the linked question does not fall under that policy. I have linked the policy in my answer, and shown why I think it does not apply, I invite you, or anyone to show exactly how I am mistaken. to ask "whether a plan is in accord with the law" is a question about what the law provides, it is NOT a RSLA.. I am not sure what you mean by "a populist argument" -- I am appealing to the written letter of the policy. – David Siegel Feb 13 at 3:00
  • Your comment is right there to see, ".. there were not 5 votes to close the question, so not everyone agreed with you." argues that because the question is not closed yet, it would not be closed at all, which is absurd, and that this is because the closure is unpopular instead of merely incomplete. – Nij Feb 13 at 3:02
  • All right, it is surely possible that this will be closed in time. I take your point. Still when you call the linked Q an RLSA as if everyone would/should agree, that seems a proof by assertion to me. I for one still do not agree. One other user gave an answer and so apparently does not agree. – David Siegel Feb 13 at 3:11
  • Like every site across the network, there are some who think Stack Exchange should answer every question, and a small few who ignore or despise decreed policy regardless of how sensible and necessary it is. – Nij Feb 13 at 3:44
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    No doubt there are. I have cast VTC on many Qs including for RSLA. I am asking why you think the linked Q is a RSLA. I am not seeing an answer yet. If it is NOT a RSLA there is no reason to close it. If it is, but can be edited not to be, policy favors prompt editing over closing first. – David Siegel Feb 13 at 3:48
  • You got that answer in my first comment; you rejected it with a handwave. If that's all you want, I see no point in further discussion. – Nij Feb 13 at 3:50
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    Also policy is not "decreed" it is created in community discussions right here on the Meta site. – David Siegel Feb 13 at 3:50
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    The first line of youe answer says "As written, the question is off-topic" it never says why. One of your comments says "The question refers in several places to performing a task for which the asker seeks advice on whether their plans are accordance with the law;" that dos not seem to match the policy post I quoted in my answer edit, nor does itr seem common sense to me. I see no other reason asserted. – David Siegel Feb 13 at 3:56
  • Stack Exchange decrees a wide range of policies across the network. If you're going to totally ignore basics like that, and continue to ignore explanations, I don't even know what to tell you, you'd just misinterpret to read whatever you want. – Nij Feb 16 at 9:47

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