This question was recently asked. It asks about the current status of copyright of a certain work.

It was closed fairly soon after it was asked for being off-topic. Now, it seems to me that this is the kind of question we do actually want - it asks a specific question about a specific open source project, on a subject (copyright) that is well within our scope. I'd vote to reopen.

However, I'm a moderator with a binding vote, and I'd like to be more sure than my own opinion that this question should be reopened. It currently has two reopen votes. Given one or two more votes, I'll cast mine - but I'd also like to poll the community. Both those who closed it and those who are voting to reopen - what are your reasons?

  • 2
  • 1
    One thing that I've noticed about many meta posts, is that they seemingly contradict each other, so there's no clue on what is okay. There's more links as well...
    – Zizouz212
    Commented Oct 4, 2015 at 15:20
  • 1
    My own WTF? feeling was mostly triggered by the close reason @curiousdannii provided: "I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is about a single specific work.". I would have understood something along the lines of "there is no obvious indication that the code is licensed under an open source license, please provide a reference". Commented Oct 5, 2015 at 12:09
  • 1
    @MichaelSchumacher That was perhaps not the best way of phrasing what I meant. Yes we welcome specific questions here, but tracking down the copyright status of a single work is not one of the kinds of specific questions we should allow. Commented Oct 5, 2015 at 12:28
  • 1
    Yes, phrasing close reasons is rather important, as this thread shows :) A contributing factor for my WTF? was Adventure's status as (one of?) the first-ever adventure games - was this something you were did consider before voting for the close? Commented Oct 5, 2015 at 12:37
  • 1
    @MichaelSchumacher I know that a lot of old software was assumed to be public domain, but that doesn't make it so. So as I wrote below, I think questions like these should be based on sourced claims showing that a work has a contested license. Commented Oct 5, 2015 at 12:42
  • 1
    My questions was rather whether the status of "first-ever adventure game" (or first-ever $something of olden ages) did influence your decision at all. Commented Oct 5, 2015 at 12:46
  • 1
    @MichaelSchumacher No, why would it? Commented Oct 5, 2015 at 15:29
  • 1
    @MichaelSchumacher for me somewhat. Only because it's really old(tm) it has any hopes of being PD
    – Martijn
    Commented Oct 5, 2015 at 20:25

5 Answers 5


The question is not about support for Adventure, but rather a question about its copyright status (contrast: "what is the magic word in Adventure" or "how do I get out of the maze of twisted passages", "how do I compile Adventure"), to do something open-sourcy with it.

Questions like this are helpful to the asker, and may be helpful to a broad public. So this question is

  • Asking about something open-sourcy
  • Useful to the asker
  • Potentially useful for other people looking to do open-sourcy stuff
  • Answerable

I think our site is better with questions like this, and we should allow it as on topic.

I see a potential problem with these kinds of questions if they become overwhelming, but there is no sign this is happening, and we can always revisit in the future.

  • 1
    The question gives no indication or evidence that it is actually open source. Commented Oct 4, 2015 at 23:15
  • 1
    The question asks whether it's in the public domain, and there is reasonble ground to believe (some part of) it is. PD with source meets the open source definition.
    – Martijn
    Commented Oct 4, 2015 at 23:23
  • 2
    My only concern is that we're becoming more accepting of possible proprietary projects. I can ask the copyright status of Photoshop and it will be fine by precedent. That's a dangerous trend that could drastically affect the scope of the site. Questions on the details of specific projects should likely be on-topic, but I would probably want to require them to do the research and prove in some way that the project is open source.
    – Zizouz212
    Commented Oct 6, 2015 at 2:25
  • 2
    I don't really believe in addressing problems that don't yet exist, and I have no problem ignoring or overturning precedent if that's what's best for the site. PD is complicated, rather rare - which means there is very little chance it may become overwhelming, even if the majority of "is X PD" would be no, and very much applicable to open source. I also don't see too much of a problem with a hypothetical "when will the first version of Photoshop enter the PD?" (to which the answer is, in a similar vein as the great majority of software in 2085).
    – Martijn
    Commented Oct 6, 2015 at 9:05

The question asks about copyright status of a specific work.

“Copyright status of a work” is intended by this author to include all of:

  • Who (if anyone) holds copyright in the work? For some works, the copyright might have expired. For some works, the copyright may have passed to some other entity. For some works, the specifics of its creation may explicitly deny copyright for the work.

  • How broadly is that copyright recognised? Most states in the Berne convention recognise each others's claims, but there are interesting corner cases.

  • What explicit copyright license is granted to a general recipient of the work? There is typically a simple answer to this for most recipients of a work, but special cases abound.

  • What effective freedom from copyright restrictions does a general recipient of this work have? This certainly includes whatever explicit freedoms are granted by a license from the copyright holder. There are numerous forced exceptions under copyright law, including public domain. There are also interesting corner cases for some works.

So a question asking “what is the copyright status of this work, given its specific history?” – where “copyright status” is understood to cover any and all of the above – is IMO on-topic for this site.

  • 3
    You should really ask those four specific questions in the question itself! :) Commented Oct 5, 2015 at 6:01
  • 2
    I don't think any of these four questions are on-topic here. They might be on-topic at Law. Commented Oct 5, 2015 at 6:01
  • Actually, they're not really on-topic anywhere. We should be asking for the copyright status of iOS here, and law only accepts questions about specific laws in specific jurisdictions. See my comment on Martijn's answer.
    – Zizouz212
    Commented Oct 6, 2015 at 2:26

What is the copyright status of X? Questions

The copyright status means the author, country and date of publication, whether it was published by an individual or company (relevant for copyright expiration), and whether the copyright has been transferred to someone else.

As well as being extremely hard to determine (there does not have to be a public record of copyright transfers), these questions are only tangentially related to this site's topic. I do not think these questions should be allowed.

What is the license of X? Questions

If it has been claimed that X is published under a FLOSS license (or it has been claimed that is is public domain, but not abandonware), and there is a counter claim that it either has not, or it has been published under a different license, these questions can be asked here.

If you can't find any such claims and are just curious, then that question should not be allowed. For these questions to be constructive, like on Skeptics.SE, we must deal with notable claims. Unless a claim could reasonably be considered to be common knowledge then the claims should be referenced and maybe even quoted.

  • The effective (i.e. not just explicit, but also permitted under law) copyright license of a work, is surely part of its copyright status at a particular time.
    – bignose
    Commented Oct 4, 2015 at 23:46
  • @bignose I disagree. Copyright law only recognises two states: in copyright and public domain. Even FLOSS licenses aren't part of that status, because it is up to the recipient to decide whether they want to use the license or not (and therefore not have access to the work potentially.) Commented Oct 5, 2015 at 1:05

I had originally voiced some concerns in the comments, but have decided to go much further in-depth in what I see.

First off, we need to stop looking at this from a technical standpoint. That's easy for me: I don't know of any 1960s game since I'm only 15. I grew up with Game Boys and Pokemon at my side.

About the question, let's dive into a deeper analysis:

What is the copyright status of the source code of “Adventure” (also known as Colossal Cave Adventure)?

Is that an open source related question, or is it a specific issue that is encountered in open source development? No. Allowing these sorts of questions sets a dangerous trend. We'll start a dangerous precedent, allowing questions that would quite likely overturn a big portion of the scope. A legal term, stare decisis applies to this. By setting a basic question that is borderline, and accepting it, you now create a spot where close voters, and question authors can point to in an argument for closure.

In essence, we can start seeing posts like these:

What is the copyright status of iOS? Can I make my own derivative version of this?

What is the copyright status of Photoshop? Can I relicense this under the GPL?

Had the question been one of these, it would've likely been closed, no argument. By allowing this question, we set an example that allows these questions.

But the project could possibly be Public Domain!!

I didn't know that. For all I know, Photoshop could've been Public Domain by now. That doesn't excuse anyone from this, the question about whether I can place Photoshop in the Public Domain, is simply not an open source question, even if the answer to that question leads to another question that is on-topic.

So what do we do about this?

Stack Exchange thrives on questions about specific projects. Quoting Robert Cartaino:

Do we want to allow specific questions?

Not just 'yes', but… helllll yes!

I have no problem with specific problems. I love finding and answering them.

However, we're a site about Open Source, and we're not a site where I can determine who owns [so and so product].

How can this question be made on-topic?

If a question like this is to be on-topic, it is the responsibility of the author to prove to us that the project is open-source. We're just not simply here to try and do the research for people.

Simple. You tell us a specific project, and you tell us the copyright status. If it's in the Public Domain, we'll tell you the licensing issues, but we're not here to find the copyright status for you, because we're not trained to do that: we're trained in open-source specific issues.

  • Demanding proof is too strong. As I said in my post, we should base these questions on quoted claims. If there's reasonable doubt something is public domain then that would make for a good question. If you already have proof you don't need to ask it... Commented Oct 6, 2015 at 3:56
  • Perhaps, but I would at least want some indication of research effort on the par to the OP that describes the confusions they have, at the very least.
    – Zizouz212
    Commented Oct 7, 2015 at 12:48

We've got one comment on the original question, stating:

"The references state that the oldest existing source files are timestamped March 1977. Copyright laws and copyright requirements were different then."

I'm not sure if this was meant as a on-topic or off-topic indicator. If you read the articles about Adventure, you will notice that someone had just asked the author for access to the original source code, and this was granted.

I thought that it is exactly this old age of the code, dating back to the times that were effectively what makes the question interesting - for example, a possible answer could be "you will have to ask the author if the code can be made open".

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .