After seeing yet another licensing question I'm wondering whether I'm right in thinking they should be closed. While it can be difficult or slow getting answers for technical questions from the vendors, software companies, etc., surely questions about licensing should always be directed to the supplier of those licenses. To complicate things further, many licenses vary significantly from place to place, so the question may also be too localised.

So, should licensing question be closed as off-topic or left alone, often to get some misleading and even downright incorrect answers because the answer doesn't apply to the OP's part of the world?

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I use server fault to look for answer to complex technical questions, and these answer usually come from real world experince. However some licensing issues are very complex, thus need complex answer from those 'in the field'. I'm doubtful that a vendor would activly volunteer information on saving money for example, it's just not in their interests to do it. –  The Unix Janitor Oct 13 '10 at 21:23
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@user37899, my own experience with vendors is contrary to what you say. Every time I've used a vendor to help me with licensing issues they have helped me greatly in getting what I need for the lowest cost. They have also been able to offer expertise in a specialised field that no admin can be expected to have, at least not to the same degree. –  John Gardeniers Oct 13 '10 at 22:07

7 Answers 7

up vote 12 down vote accepted

I wish we could have a "Closed because this isn't somethng that you should be going to anybody but the Licensor for" reason. That's probably a little too specific and verbose, though... >smile<

I think they should be closed, but it would be nice to provide the poster a link to a description of the rationale behind the closing. That gives them a meaningful answer, at least.

How do we work that? Maybe all licensing questions should be closed as exact duplicates of a single "Who should I talk to about software licensing questions?" question with an accepted answer (ideally written by me and copiously upvoted by all of you... >snicker<) saying "Talk to the Licensor."

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Yes Evan, you really need all those extra votes. Seriously though, you do have a knack for this kind of thing and I for one would be happy to see you write something suitable. –  John Gardeniers Aug 7 '10 at 8:21
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THIS --> Maybe all licensing questions should be closed as exact duplicates of a single "Who should I talk to about software licensing questions?" question with an accepted answer <-- THIS –  ThatGraemeGuy Aug 16 '10 at 12:57
    
For most licensing questions, like the example, they should be closed as too localized. The circumstances surrounding the licensing question are simply not relevant to the Internet community at large (usually). Some questions however can be answered by people around SF, and are generic enough to be of use to the community. I do agree we could use a nice write up thoroughly explaining "contact the vendor because your situation is probably too unique to be useful to other people". –  Chris S Aug 24 '10 at 16:07
    
I've come back here after seeing yet another flurry of licensing questions and am now of the opinion that while your "Closed because..." might be a bit too specific perhaps we should have a somewhat more general option, such as "Closed because this question should be asked of the vendor". –  John Gardeniers Dec 23 '10 at 3:12
    
I've yet to be convinced that these questions should be closed. Why can't members of SF who have knowledge in this field be allowed to answer? I wouldn't disagree that ultimately the question should be answered by the vendor, as the SF community might occasionally give bad advise, but does this not apply to every single question raised on SF? –  Bryan Dec 16 '11 at 8:24

ServerFault now has a canonical answer for licensing questions. Our standard practice should be to close all software licensing questions, including historical software licensing questions, as a duplicate of:

Can you help me with my software licensing question?

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That's REALLY tricky. Yes, vendor support should be involved but I have had far too many cases where the vendor didn't know WTF I was talking about and peers who've worked with the product did. In this era of highly modular pricing (al la carte?), getting a bunch of anecdotes with stories of how people used them is actually kind of useful.

The real danger is as you say, though. Wrong information. Hopefully people who DO know what the answers are will downvote the wrong answers. And yes, licensing regimes in North America can differ markedly from EMEA and Asia.

Since we discourage 'discussion' types of questions ("Tell me how you licensed your NetBackup environment") we should probably close these as too vague or non-specific enough for correct answers.

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i put the following at the top of all my licensing answers:

STANDARD LICENSING DISCLAIMER:

While SF can give you a decent idea, and more often than not a very good answer, the best place to ask these types of questions is to ask you licensing representative from Microsoft.

"Microsoft" can be substituted for any vendor.

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They should be left alone. Often it is difficult to get a timely answer from a vendor on licensing questions, especially if you are dealing with a reseller in the middle of the whole process.

What better place to go instead than a community where someone may have already dealt with the same issue? Granted, these questions can border contract or legal questions but I think we are smart enough to understand the implicit IANAL on these types of questions.

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IMHO - If you are having trouble getting answers from a vendor, find a new vendor who actually wants your money. –  Zypher Aug 17 '10 at 3:26
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or what if your completely locked into one vendor? that vendor can treat you how it likes.. –  The Unix Janitor Oct 13 '10 at 21:18

I think they should be allowed. Asking if Windows Server 2008 R2 requires a new license to be purchased if you already own Windows Server 2008 is completely valid. People who have had to research software licensing in their job will be able to help others with these types of questions. They'll also know at which point to say "Talk to your vendor" and answer as such.

More importantly, as a server administrator, knowing the licensing rules may be a large part of your job. That alone qualifies it to be on SF imo.

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I think the point was, if you call yourself a professional you should know that Windows includes some downgrade rights (and where to look up the details). And the really tricky questions are likely to be of no value to 99.99% of people coming to the site because the details are too specific to the person asking the question. Most licensing questions come from people who should be asking their Technical Support (vendor, internal staff, or consultant). –  Chris S Aug 30 '10 at 20:30
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While I agree, this argument is getting close to the realm of "I can Google that in 2 minutes". I've spent hours pouring over licensing documents from Microsoft because no one else at my job would. Sometimes even finding the answer to a simple question can be difficult when faced with the pages of documentation Microsoft has on it. We're not dealing with only the seasoned vets of the licensing world here, a lot of SF users will be seeing it for the first time. It's complex stuff and I don't mind helping people with the easier aspects of it. –  Sean Howat Aug 31 '10 at 15:05
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why are you pouring through those documents? You should be contacting one of the Microsoft licensing partners for that. They have the expertise you and I cannot be expected to have in such a complex and often localised area. That's the whole point we're trying to make here. –  John Gardeniers Aug 31 '10 at 21:39
    
Maybe it's just my corporate structure where I work then. I work for the government and as far as I can tell there isn't one place where I've been able to go for this info. I had to figure it out for myself. People come and ask me stuff about it now. It's annoying but that's just how it played out at my job. I still think that not all licensing questions are as localized as people here are implying. There's some very quick and dirty licensing questions that can be applied almost anywhere. The rest should go to the vendor. –  Sean Howat Sep 1 '10 at 16:45
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+1 for More importantly, as a server administrator, knowing the licensing rules may be a large part of your job. Indeed, it's worth noting that there is actually a Microsoft course/qualification specifically for administrators who are responsible for such matters. –  Bryan Dec 16 '11 at 8:27

When I was active on ServerFault I was quite vocal about my objection to licensing questions not being allowed. Despite this I followed the rules and voted to close such questions, because that was the agreed thing to do here on SF, it felt wrong to me, but I went with it, as the rules are driven by the community. I remember suggesting at the time that I'd write about why I thought licensing questions should be allowed, so here goes...

Disclaimer: In my experience 'Vendor' in terms of licensing is synonymous with 'Microsoft', other vendors are available, etc, etc.

I'm going ask a couple of questions here to demonstrate a point


Should licensing questions be closed?

What's the worst that's going to happen if you follow bad advise and get it wrong?

If you're trying to do the right thing with a licensing issue (you are, because you're asking about it), then if you get it wrong, the vendor isn't going to be hitting you with legal action, they're going to help you put things right. Sure if you want to be 100% certain, then contact the vendor and do as they tell you, that way you're covered, but if you do follow bad advise from SF and get it wrong and are caught out, it's not the worst thing ever as many here on SF seem to think. You might have to explain to your boss why you're having to spend money on extra licenses that you hadn't allowed for, but the chances of actually getting into legal trouble is pretty slim, unless you're actually trying to circumvent purchasing licenses, or pretending you don't have licensing issues when you know you have them (to the point where you are not cooperating with vendors interested in auditing you).


Should technical questions be closed?

What the worst thing that's going to happen if you follow bad advise and get it wrong?

If you're trying to do the right thing with a technical issue (you are, because you're asking about it), then if you get it wrong, you could end up losing some or all of your company's data. You might have followed advise that resulted in no backups being taken in the last few years, worse still, both of the above. The chances of losing your job are almost certain, the chances of the company going out of business are high, and it's also likely you'll be held liable for damages for your conduct.


The definitive way of obtaining support in both the above situations is via your vendor (hey, I've just made ServerFault redundant with that statement!). You can write a really good question about a technical problem which details every aspect of the problem with a fanatical level of detail in the question, you get can many really good answers from the many knowledgeable people here on SF, the person responding might have had the exact same failure on the exact same hardware just the day before, but when following the offered advise you can still get it wrong. When the boss calls you to his office to explain yourself, given the choice of being able to respond with 'I followed the vendors instructions' or 'I asked on a public QA website for sys admins', you're always going to be in a better position if you can say that you sought advise from the vendor.

I believe many people don't want licensing questions being asked on SF, because they aren't technical questions. We're all geeks, we like technical questions over licensing questions any day of the week. Licensing is the boring part of systems administration that everybody wished they didn't have to deal with. It's a complicated subject, it's easy to get wrong, and not many people understand how it works, and it's easier to not have to think about it, so the consensus here is that it becomes a taboo subject, it's much easier to pretend it doesn't exist. In reality, licensing is essential for systems administration, you need to know this stuff, every time you deploy some software or install an operating system, you should ask yourself if your existing licenses cover you for this installation. If you don't, you aren't doing your job properly. Licensing is hard, but much like a technical issue you might find yourself battling with, once you spend some time researching it and seeking advise, it's actually not that hard.

TL;DR; version

Given that the implications of getting a licensing issue wrong are far less than getting a technical question wrong, software licensing questions should be allowed long after technical questions are no longer permitted on SF.

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As for the reasoning behind closing licence questions, I happen to know that even within a narrow sphere (product licences for education) both Microsoft and some other major players have slightly different licence terms depending on what area of the world you're in, what type of education establishment you are and which one of the schemes on offer you have opted to join. In other words, I can go and talk to 2 other people who work for educational establishments in the same city as me and we can all have different deals for how our licensing works... –  RobM Dec 10 at 14:35
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... The fact is that SF and most of the SE family tries to deal with hard facts that are useful to the majority of the audience. Given what I'm saying about the variability of licence terms even in one small locale, I don't think licences are a viable subject matter. With the risk of advice being wrong (and regardless of 'consequences', a site that shares advice that it knows may well be wrong is limiting how useful it is) and the wide range of possible answers based on a number of variables that the average asker won't even know about, I don't see the point personally. –  RobM Dec 10 at 14:38
    
@RoBM true, but that's just (important) detail. The number of variables related to a licensing question is far smaller than all but the most basic questions here on SF in my experience. I've an unresolved technical question myself here on SF, that's also been through several iterations of support cases with Microsoft for over 18 months that never got resolved. Conversely, I've never had a licensing query that wasn't answered with no more than a short two or three paragraph email asking for help. –  Bryan Dec 10 at 18:16
    
Yes but the few paragraphs of help need to be directed to the right people. And incidentally, the penalties for getting licence costs wrong can be quite severe. If you're on the wrong scheme you might be overpaying by a large amount. If you allow some licences to lapse there might be a greater cost to pick them up after a gap then there would have been to renew in a timely manner. (my employer is on several schemes that exhibit at least one of those characteristics). I think allowing potentially bad advice here would be a terrible idea. –  RobM Dec 10 at 18:33

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