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    • CommentAuthorstumpc5
    • CommentTimeMay 27th 2013 edited
    I wonder if it would be appropriate to turn an answer into a paper. In particular, I am talking about this question . I do see several problems if writing up even my solution even if I did the complete work myself:

    - I would not have thought about the question if it would not have been raised on MO. If I am asked such a question in person, I would rather write such a paper together.
    - Other people also gave answers. What if my solution was influenced by other people's answers. This is not particularly the case for my question, but other authors who provided alternative approaches or partial answers might have the impression they were part of the solution as well.

    Another user proposed a different approach and even turned it into a new question: . Should I as least ask if we try to merge both approaches if possible?

    What do other people think about such situations?

    I haven't actually looked at the question, but what are you worried about?

    1. Others feeling they weren't given enough credit?
    2. A referee or reader thinking that you 'cheated' somehow because the question arose at MO?
    3. ...

    It seems that 1. is easy enough to deal with: offer everyone involved coauthorship! With careful acknowledgements and context, I doubt 2. is really a problem. There are certainly many instances by now of MO questions resulting in papers --- have a look through the "success stories" thread for some examples.

    • CommentAuthorgrp
    • CommentTimeMay 27th 2013
    If MathOverflow has a corporate entity behind it, I think it achieves the status of being askable for co-authorship. As long as the paper is clear about the origins and degree of participation involved, I can see MathOverflow as co-author and Christian Stumpf as author, secretary, and part of the research team, with the remainder of names being listed in an acknowledgment section. Alternately, Christian retains sole authorship, but mentions MathOverflow by name in the abstract and perhaps also in the title, as well as in an appropriate acknowledgment section.

    Gerhard "Also Archive The Question Data" Paseman, 2013.05.27

    Interesting thought Gerhard.... I haven't read through the question to see whether this is relevant to the case at hand. However, in any case, there is a precedent for the case of a genuine community effort: D.H.J. Polymath. It wouldn't be completely inappropriate to use MathOverflow as an author in a similar manner. This would solve the problem of anonymous contributors, for example. However, since MathOverflow is a corporate entity, one would need to ask permission from the board of directors. Perhaps there should be a policy about this since there are lots of side issues here. I will bring this up at the next board meeting.

    • CommentAuthorHenry Cohn
    • CommentTimeMay 27th 2013

    I don't think it's a good idea to do anything nonstandard with authorship unless it's absolutely clear that everyone participating knew the plan in advance and was in full agreement. That's the case for polymath projects, but hardly ever in other circumstances. (For example, I don't think someone can give up a claim to individual authorship just because the FAQ said pseudonymous joint authorship was a possibility. We have plenty of evidence that most people don't read the FAQ carefully.)

    Aside from the issue of anonymous participants, is there a reason why listing MathOverflow as an author would make more sense than listing M. F. Oberwolfach as an author? Polymath-style community efforts seem to me to be rare.


    Actually, unless done very carefully, using the polymath recipe would actually infringe the CC BY-SA license as well as the SE terms of service. However, when attributed carefully, MathOverflow content can copied and/or adapted by anyone.

    Henry, I don't agree with your parenthetical remark: when you use a service you implicitly agree to the terms of service. (Note, however, that the SE terms of service essentially prevent giving up claim to individual ownership, in a sense.)

    I don't think any of the issues that arise here are MO-specific.

    Sure, if you hadn't read the question you would not have thought about this problem. But this situation could just as well have happened offline, e.g. if Vince Vatter had given a talk at your local seminar and stated this as a conjecture. Also you could imagine other participants of the seminar making suggestions or speculating at tea afterwards on how to approach the problem. I don't think either of these issues would cause you to feel uneasy about writing up your own answer.

    But if you really wish, you can of course offer to write a joint article with one or more of the others who were involved in this question.
    • CommentAuthorHenry Cohn
    • CommentTimeMay 27th 2013

    Regarding terms of service, I agree in a legal sense, but I don't think the mathematical community would consider it ethically binding as far as publication norms go. I.e., if someone proposed to publish a research paper with the author MathOverflow based on an argument that arose from the combination of several MO questions and anwers, and if one of the participants was unhappy about this and thought the paper should list human authors based on degree of contribution rather than a collective pseudonym, then I don't think an implicit agreement would carry much weight. This is so far outside of typical mathematical norms that I think if one participant said "Wait, when I contributed that answer I had no idea I was agreeing to this" or even "I changed my mind," I think most editors would be very reluctant to publish the paper under the MathOverflow name.

    I can see MathOverflow being an author for certain sorts of compilations. For example, if someone published a book that collected the most popular MO questions and aswers, then MathOverflow would be an amusing and reasonable author to list for the book as a whole. The CC BY-SA license would allow this, provided the individual questions and answers were correctly attributed and the book itself was released under such a license too.


    Henry, I don't think there is much disagreement on the ethics. The only circumstance where it would make sense to do this is precisely one like Polymath 1, where the collaboration graph is sufficiently complex enough that sorting it out makes little sense.

    In any case, regardless of how the decision to do so is reached, in order to use MathOverflow as an author several things need to happen, including (1) getting permission from the board of directors and either (2a) getting all contributors to relicense their work to MathOverflow in a manner that doesn't require precise attribution or (2b) annotating the paper with precise contributions to fulfill the requirements of CC BY-SA and the SE/MO TOS. Whether or not the board should ever authorize this is the interesting part for me. Fortunately, I don't think we need to seriously entertain this until someone goes through the licensing/attribution hurdles.

    • CommentAuthorHenry Cohn
    • CommentTimeMay 28th 2013

    I think permission from the board would be the main legal issue, as long as the article was written from scratch, rather than copying or adapting text from MO. The CC BY-SA license is relevant only to copyright issues (the text itself is copyrightable but not the ideas contained in it), and the same seems to be true for the SE terms of service (based on how they define "content"). On the other hand, if you want to use text from MO, then all the attribution and licensing rules come into play.

    Incidentally, for me the weirdest and most confusing part of the terms of service is the following sentence:

    In the event that You post or otherwise use Subscriber Content outside of the Network or Services, whether such Subscriber Content was created by You or others, You agree that You will follow the attribution rules of the Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike license as follows:

    I don't understand what it means to say you "will follow the attribution rules ... as follows"? Does it mean when the attribution rules apply, this is how you should follow them? I.e., in this case it's just explaining what you have to do to "attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor" as required by the CC BY-SA license. Or does it mean you must follow the CC BY-SA attribution rules even in situations in which those rules would not otherwise apply? As the copyright holder, you can normally do whatever you want with your own work, including using or releasing it under other licenses, but this interpretation would forbid that. I can't come up with a compelling argument for why either interpretation is untenable, but of course I'm not a lawyer.


    I hope that our newly acquired corporate status doesn't change much around here --- we're all going to have enough change to get used to and adapt to with the coming of 2.0.

    In particular, I wasn't too thrilled to see François' suggestion that he would bring the question of authorship by "MathOverflow" up at a board meeting. What's wrong with hashing it out here?

    I think we should aim to preserve as much as possible the current governing model. (Or perhaps the governing model that I've had in mind, whether or not it really exists!) That is, to the extent possible decisions should be made through argument (and hopefully eventual consensus) between everyone concerned, here on meta (or its future replacements), with the role of the moderators ideally restricted as much as possible to emergency operations (suspend this person, write to that person privately when a private intervention seems best) and to "infrastructure" work (e.g. setting up LaTeX, citations, arxiv trackbacks, and the migration) which needs continuous attention.

    To the extent that for legal purposes decisions are required of the board, I hope that as often as possible these decisions are merely rubber-stampings of decisions reached amongst the wider MO community. That said, I'm pretty content with the moderators (and hence the board) making their own decisions when consensus here on meta is not achievable.

    On a purely selfish note (as someone on the new board of directors), I hope that our board meetings (note that none have taken place yet) are as swift and painless as possible, because everything that possibly could be taken care of here on meta already has been!


    Henry has identified a real issue here, I think.

    My reading is that the TOS say that even the contributor must follow the attribution rules when posting their content elsewhere. This isn't required by CC BY-SA itself.

    For the record, I don't want to put in the work of being a co-author, and would consider it perfectly fine if Christian wrote this paper with a simple acknowledgment of my question.

    Scott, there has to be a board vote on MathOverflow by-laws. That is the only purpose of board meetings. I think it's a good idea to keep discussions outside board meetings. In fact, we should make that one of the first by-laws. That will help keep it to a once a year thing, as we discussed elsewhere.

    For the sake of clarity, what I had planned to bring up to the board is whether there should be a policy about the use of the name MathOverflow, which includes but is not limited to this particular question of authorship. I'm checking what legal issues there may be and whether there is a basis for protecting the use of the name MathOverflow. We might as well take care of this now while we have our lawyers on a retainer.

    I agree with Henry and Scott that the wording of the TOS is not as clear as it should be, we should tell some SE folks. The reading that requires the that You must follow the CC BY-SA attribution rules even in situations in which those rules would not otherwise apply appears to remove some of the author's copyrights. I'm pretty sure that's not what SE had in mind. The key to understanding the TOS may be the precise definition of "You" and "Subscriber Content" but that is definitely not what I would call clear.



    This mention of the by-laws made me think of you as Dennis, and the autonomous collective. (Note that Dennis talks about classes, much like set theorists!)

    • CommentAuthorfedja
    • CommentTimeMay 28th 2013
    >For the sake of clarity, what I had planned to bring up to the board is whether there should be a policy about the use of the name MathOverflow, which >includes but is not limited to this particular question of authorship. I'm checking what legal issues there may be and whether there is a basis for protecting >the use of the name MathOverflow. We might as well take care of this now while we have our lawyers on a retainer.

    At some point when I still was at Michigan State, we all received a 40 or so page manuscript about "the use of the block letter S" (the logo of "Spartans"). The first three pages contained the exact description of the block letter S (the typical phrase being "the diagonal cuts are somewhat shorter than the horizontal boundary pieces"), the next ten pages contained the main principles and guidelines of allowed and prohibited usage (like "You cannot use the block letter S as a part of a word in a sentence"). The last 20-something pages contained the illustrated examples of correct and incorrect usage (like "This usage is incorrect because S is pink instead of green"). I'm sorry to say it folks, but the direction in the present discussion goes strongly reminds me of that manuscript. :(

    I was afraid of that too, fedja. That kind of thing (though probably not 40 pages) would be required if we want to register the MathOverflow logo as a trademark. I hope we don't have to do that. For the matter at hand, I think the name MathOverflow is already protected by incorporation (to a certain extent that I'm still trying to figure out).

    • CommentAuthorfedja
    • CommentTimeMay 28th 2013
    My question is why on Earth should you protect it at all? It is protected much better by the general public knowledge of who we (or should I now say "you"?") are and what we are doing here than by any ridiculous legal statutes, which nobody pays any attention to anyway and enforcing of which will cost you more in reputation than you can possibly get in reparations. That manuscript made the MSU legal department a laughing stock for a couple of months. Is it the kind of publicity you want?

    fedja, we're all trying very hard to figure out how to incorporate MO the right way to serve the community. Your comment is not very productive in doing that. I'm currently investigating whether there is a cause to protect the MathOverflow name (not the logo). You seem to say "no" and I would be very happy with that answer if you gave me a reason why.

    • CommentAuthorfedja
    • CommentTimeMay 28th 2013
    Didn't I do just exactly that? Let me spell my point of view out if it isn't clear yet. MO is a public enterprise that depends on the voluntary cooperation of its participants and awareness respect of the general mathematical community, not on patent and copyright royalties, sells of any type of product, etc., Any attempt to make some legal rules that go beyond common sense will achieve nothing but alienating some group of people. Any attempt to enforce those rules in serious (and if you do not want to enforce the legal rules, what's the point of making them?) will alienate even more people (Imagine the headline "MO sues user Fedja for the misuse of the content".) If you go along this way up to the very end, you'll end up perfectly protected and with zero user base. So, I suggest you don't make even the first step.

    The name "MO" is protected as much as the name "duck". Almost everybody knows what it is and what it does. You cannot prevent people from talking about MO in any way they want. You cannot really prevent them from making bumper stickers like "MOnster". Probably, you cannot even prevent a third party to start selling T-shirts with lines "I love(hate) MathOverflow" for profit. So, what can you prevent?

    At last, what exactly are you aftraid of? What can, possibly, be an "offence" to the MO name that can do it a serious damage? Suppose I want to bring MO down today by attacking its unprotected name. What plan of action do you propose that would scratch MO's reputation without destroying mine? Come up with a real threat, and then it will make sense to describe the protective measures.

    Here is what I figured out regarding the legal use of the name MathOverflow. As expected, most of what I found had to do with protecting commercial interests but some basic principles apply generally.

    First, there is a big difference between a corporate name (like the one we have: MathOverflow) and a trademark (which we don't have). The latter is an actual property which reserves exclusive use of the name/logo for various purposes. It doesn't look like we really need a trademark since we have earned the right to keep using the name for the purpose of this site. However, there is a lot of "advice" out there claiming that these rights are not sufficient protection. We do have a clause in our contract preventing SE to use MathOverflow for another similar site and that's probably the only thing we really need to worry about.

    By incorporating in Delaware, we ensured that MathOverflow is a unique identifier in that state, some other jurisdictions would not allow the reuse of that name by others but Delaware is the only sure thing. The name MathOverflow is still somewhat protected against misrepresentation in most jurisdictions, nationally and internationally. In other words, it is illegal to use the name MathOverflow, in reference to this corporation, without permission. There are tons of loopholes such as using MathOverflow in reference to something else (e.g. a corporation with the same name in another jurisdiction) but it is still unlawful to do that with the intent of deceit. Bottom line: you can't use MathOverflow as an author of a paper without permission unless you're referring to something other than this site.


    At last, what exactly are you afraid of?

    That was the question, fedja. A particular case was brought up by Gerhard where someone used MathOverflow as an author of a paper. I investigated these issues and I got most of the answers I wanted. Thanks for your help.

    • CommentAuthorgrp
    • CommentTimeMay 28th 2013
    I agree with fedja that subjecting users to legalese often results in fewer users. However, the purpose of incorporating and creating an entity with legal status is to give some degree of security to the notion of continuingthis forum in something close to its present form.

    Suppose I decide to start a tutoring service, and call it MathUnderflow. (For purposes of clarity in this example, I don't call it MathOverflow, but I could do that.) I may have things arranged so that my service depends on that name, and find that I can market more effectively. Now some upstart Delaware nonprofit corporation comes along and says that their forum is using the name, and would I please go elsewhere. Wanting to preserve an air of politeness, I ask my lawyer to draft a response that, once the courtesy and legal form are stripped away, tells the upstart to go stuff themselves. Now the legal fun can begin, and excepting the lawyers, there will (in this scenario) be at most one winner.

    Part of the board's job is to do what it can so that this forum can continue and we as users have to worry little or none about the legal ramifications. That doesn't mean the ramifications can be ignored. If you are eating and not making the sausage, you should not gripe about how it is being made.

    Gerhard "Never A Lawyer Nor Butcher" Paseman, 2013.05.28

    Having settled most legal aspects, there is still the question whether there should be any rules allowing the use of the MathOverflow name in some circumstances. However, as I pointed out before, I don't think we need to seriously entertain this thought until an actual realistic case pops up.


    Note that we already allow the use of the name and logo for t-shirts, mugs, stickers, or other paraphernalia provided no more than $50 profit is made in the process. Is anything more formal than that required?

    • CommentAuthorfedja
    • CommentTimeMay 28th 2013
    >Bottom line: you can't use MathOverflow as an author of a paper without permission unless you're referring to something other than this site

    Ah, Francois! Suppose that when I submit my next paper, I put MO in the author line without asking anyone's permission. It'll be a good paper (I don't publish junk) and it will be a result of some real discussion on MO. What will you do? I'm not saying that it'll be the most admirable act of mine to put someone's name on the paper without asking him/it first, but I'm afraid that by trading the protection of common sense for the protection of legal crookery, you weaken your position, not strengthen it. We both know that many people here get enraged when the title of the topic starts with "Prove that..." (one thing I could never really understand; to me it is a completely normal title). Now you start the sentence with "You can't". Not a good sign: as it was said many times "we don't like to be ordered here...".

    You see, even the very discussion of the MO name protection can easily result in a completely unnecessary and stupid confrontation. Wait until you file your first lawsuit!

    IMHO, all you really need to do is to do the incorporation process according to the common practices in the state of incorporation and to continue to rely on your own and other people common sense and good intentions in the everyday operations. Common sense and respect are usually met with common sense and respect. Authoritative tone and legalese are usually met with defiance and mischief.

    Anyway, I'd better look at some new questions now. It'll be much more efficient use of my time here :).

    fedja, you're still missing the point entirely: it's about allowing the use of the MathOverflow name. The legal research I did was to determine if the name was protected at all in the first place (ans: yes, to some extent) and whether there was a reason to seek more protection (ans: no, as far as I can tell).

    • CommentAuthorquid
    • CommentTimeMay 28th 2013

    @fedja: but you are already told you cannot do certain things related to MO content for example. See in particular the section on copying. So, if you want to reproduce the content verbatim you cannot do this in whatever way you like but are told to follow specific instructions (that even go slightly, but still, beyond what I would consider as clear by common sense; not that I find it extreme, but for example the fourth point is not something I would consider as self-evident). Or, more generally, all the conten on MO is under a certain license, it is a permissive one, but then it also could be more permissive. Why is this necessary? Common sense and courtesy would dictate that you cannot just reproduce others' content without even saying it is others' and where it comes from, but still it is made explicit. And I think for usage of the name the same applies.

    Of course, common sense would suggest that one say cannot create another math Q&A site taking all the existing content of MO as a start, also call it MathOverflow, and host it on mathoverflow.[sometopleveldomainthatisavailable] but then perhaps somebody might consider it. What would you suggest doing in this event? Just ignore it? It could cause some confusion after all.


    Returning to the SE TOS issue. Our current attribution requirement is not as strangely worded as the network requirements. I just sent an email to the SE team asking for clarification and I will let you know how they respond.

    I do not see any problem here either, and fully agree with the viewpoint expressed by Dan Petersen.
    • CommentAuthorquid
    • CommentTimeMay 28th 2013 edited

    I do not fully understand the point of view of dan petersen and Vladimir Dotsenko. Is it only that this also arises elsewhere, or is it that it is (essentially) never a problem to go ahead and publish it? For the later I'd disagree since in my opinion there are plenty of situations where I would not consider it alright to just publish an answer to a qestion somebody asked me (or even if publically) without explcit consent, there are also situations where I would consider it alright. But the problem is to figure out which is which for a given MO question. [Added: Since this is potentially confusing, I do not mean the particular one here only, but in general.]

    To turn this around if person Q asks a question and person A answers then also person Q could consider using the answer of person A in a publication (with attribution). Yet, if then both should happen without this being checked in advanced this could cause problems. Indeed, I consider this second scenario as least as natural. If I give an answer (without saying otherwise) the person I gave the answer to can of course use it for whatever they want to use it; that was the point of answering it after all.

    Thus, in my opinion, as a general principle (there can be unusual circumstances) a person answering a question and wanting to publish the answer should at least get the consent/opinion of OP of the question.

    • CommentAuthorfedja
    • CommentTimeMay 28th 2013
    >Thus, in my opinion, as a general principle (there can be unusual circumstances) a person answering a question and wanting to publish the answer should at least get the consent/opinion of OP of the question.

    Politeness certainly requires that (as well as granting such consent immediately except very unusual circumstances). Common sense dictates many other such things. What I strongly oppose is putting all that stuff on legal grounds and using various laws as leverage against the users of the site.

    >So, if you want to reproduce the content verbatim you cannot do this in whatever way you like but are told to follow specific instructions

    Which I have always interpreted "We would appreciate it if you ...". I would always do 1 and 2 myself without any remindings. 3 makes sense though I would just list all people without specifying their contributions. As to 4, sorry, I'm too lazy. Anybody cal click the links himself if he needs to see the profile. So, I may or may not do it depending on my mood. Feel free to kick me out and sue me for damages if I don't.

    Anyway, I do not mind the idea of incorporation too much though MO, Inc holds less appeal to me than MO, the community. What I mind is appealing to legal clauses when an easy and obvious agreement can be reached. What I also mind is asking some mysterious "board" any time I need to make some decision like that. If we disagree on that, we'd better part our ways now when no harm is still made. For me, MO is you, Francois, Bill Johnson, Tim Gowers, Terry Tao, and so on up to myself. We can discuss questions of etiquette any time the need arises. More often than not I'll agree with the majority opinion. I will always respect it. But I'm not taking instructions from some lawyers in Delaware or anywhere else on what I should and what I shouldn't do when communicating mathematics. Whatever I post is in public domain and can be used by anybody. Whatever I read is the knowledge that becomes mine and I can use it in any way I find appropriate. I'm bound by common etiquette because I respect people I deal with, not because I'm afraid of the police and court force and I want to keep it this way.
    • CommentAuthorquid
    • CommentTimeMay 28th 2013

    @fedja: You say that you "strongly oppose [is] putting all that stuff on legal grounds and using various laws as leverage against the users of the site" and I think everybody agrees with this and this and, in particular the second part, is not at all what François G. Dorais meant.

    Rather it seems to me since, as far as I understand, he specifically is at the moment busy with some administrative/legal work in order to ensure that MO can continue well these types of questions are at the moment on his mind and thus when the suggestion came up "use MathOverlow" it occured to him that there is or at least might be a general question to be dealt with who can use the name MathOverflow for what purpose (as the situation everybody, and I mean strictly everybody, can use it for strictly everything could create problems).

    I will say when I first read asking board of directors for permission and so on I was momentarily suprised, too, as it sounded strange, but then this board is nothing 'mysterious' but as mentioned recently in the migration thread it is the moderators plus Ravi Vakil. So, in the end it is anyway what seems common sense-ish to me, if you want to do something non-standard relative to MO you will bring up the question here or with the moderators directly, and then something will be figured out.

    And, I have full confidence the moderators have no interest at all to impede reasonable activities by users also involving the name MathOverflow or will start creating problems for people when attributions guidelines are only followed in spirit but not by the letter (due to loversight or lazyness).

    But, there could also be most unreasonable activities by non-users or also certain users (I mean there are also some users on the crankish side around here). Say, I would not like to see, and it could be harmful, a book or website pretending to be some "official MO Best Of" while being some badly produce compilation made by some unqualified person.

    Or, there could be still other things, say somebody thinks it would be a great business idea to spam MO-users and/or other mathematicians with promotion for whatever math-related stuff under the name MathOverflow.

    Then it could be good to have some grounds for saying this should stop. So, it seems reasonable and even desirable to me to think about such things.


    I see where this comes from now, fedja. I forgot that we still haven't had a chance to update the community. I've been wanting for one of us to write an update for the community but we've been waiting for things to fall in place for so long, I don't think any of us actually believe it's time to get the ball rolling. Anyway, here is a mini update...

    At this point, MathOverflow is incorporated but it's just a bare bones company. (By the way, MathOverflow is the full name, no Inc., LLC, or whatnot.) The idea is to get something set up quickly so we can sign a contract with StackExchange and migrate to the network. Our lawyers are currently working on drafting bylaws and basic structure and filing a 501c3 nonprofit application with the IRS. That will take a long while and our immediate concern is just to avoid screwing up. We want to get enough structure that MO is protected and remains at the service of the community.

    I don't think much of what we set up now will be permanent, it's intended as a transitional structure so we have the authority to sign contracts and secure funding for MO. None of us are interested in running the place that way. From the inside, it's a very strange experience, we're always a bit on edge when dealing with all this since we only know what things really mean until much later in the game. For example, we don't really know when and why MO's physical address will become relevant but we can't wait until then to pick one. But there is a good side to all this: we're learning a lot about the various components necessary to make MO work and we will be able to make much better decisions about the future of MO once we get through this.

    Things will work out in the end and our priority is to make sure that MO the community does not suffer through the transition.


    I basically agree with Henry Cohn, and I think most of the questions that have arisen are really about norms of the mathematical community, rather than copyright laws. Outside of some kind of compilation book, it doesn't seem reasonable for MathOverflow to be listed as a co-author. In order for such a co-authorship to be meaningful for a research project, it would require some large subset of the community to actively contribute to your question, and everyone would have to give permission to be listed in that way. On the other hand, you should feel free to thank the MO community in your acknowledgements.

    If you want to share credit with anonymous users who don't want to be co-authors or can't be contacted, you can use the standard method of adding a line in the acknowledgements, e.g., "MathOverflow user 11961 ``Donald Duck'' contributed substantially to this project, but could not be contacted/declined co-authorship."


    I basically agree with fedja. The primary function of the MO legal entity is to decide if things have gone bad enough with SE that we should make use of the bail-out clause in the agreement with them to migrate to another platform. I expect this function will never be executed. Up until a few months ago I would have said this should be its only function. The new information from the last few months is that by becoming a 501c3, MO can more easily channel money to serve the mathematical community. I think this secondary function should only be executed when it doesn't make sense to do it some other way (e.g. it probably wouldn't make sense to hire somebody to make really good reference integration for MO some other way).

    (MO as coauthor) Please don't make MO (or "Matthew O. Verflow") a coauthor on anything. It makes about as much sense as making Hotmail or your university common room into a coauthor. MO doesn't do math; it just connects people so that they can do math together more effectively. Then again, if you want to be silly like that, I won't stand in your way even if I find it annoying. I don't understand why the legal entity MO should have any opinion about this or take any action with regard to it.

    (MO copyright) Again, I don't think the legal entity MO should do anything. When MO started, I basically copied whatever Stack Overflow had as their attribution agreement. The intention was to prevent stupid stuff like mirror sites which just copy content. I thought (and still think, but I'm not a lawyer) that if you license content to MO, there's nothing stopping you from re-licensing it elsewhere under different terms. In particular, I don't think content authors are subject to the constraints of the attribution page. Anyway, even if you copy a thread verbatim (which you wouldn't do in a paper anyway ... you'd just express the ideas, so almost all such copyright discussion is moot), it would still probably be fair use. (IamnotalawyerIamnotalawyerIamnotalawyer)

    (MO trademark) I don't think the legal entity MO should do anything, except perhaps to prevent itself from being bullied by trolls (which I think is what François was looking into). But I don't think we should expend any more effort than is reasonable. I find it very difficult to imagine a situation where we (the MO community) lose the ability to use the domain, even if some other entity decides to call itself "MathOverflow" and threaten us that we'd better not use the same name. Maybe they even manage to legally prevent us from using the MO logo. In that situation, it seems pretty painless to just keep doing the same thing at the same url with a different official name and logo. Who cares? If we're really worried that some bozo is going to start making "official" MO stuff that we don't like, we'd be much better off making a big joke of it by encouraging everybody to make their own "official MO" junk, with extra points going to whoever makes the stupidest, most knock-offish thing that makes fun of the bozo.

    To recap, I think the MO legal entity should be a little-used tool of the mathematical community. It should only act when directly motivated by the goal of helping people do math together, and when the MO community (or somebody else) cannot just as easily accomplish the same goal without it.

    • CommentAuthorfedja
    • CommentTimeMay 28th 2013
    @quid and Francois: OK, it doesn't look like we have a serious disagreement then :)

    >Say, I would not like to see, and it could be harmful, a book or website pretending to be some "official MO Best Of" while being some badly produce compilation made by some unqualified person.

    Yeah, but what can you do about that? Sue? I'm afraid it won't really work out well. As to the idea itself (I mean that of a book or, rather, an annual (e)-journal), I actually do like it. As a matter of fact, a friend of mine recently tried to persuade me to put some of my own contributions together and publish them as a small book saying that they might be interesting for students learning analysis and that finding them on MO isn't easy at all (I disagreed with the first part but agreed with the second), so such a journal, if done properly, may have readers well beyond the current community. It is something to consider, perhaps (assuming that the editors have good taste and tact and community is mature enough to avoid personal grudges on the grounds of what was featured and what wasn't).

    @Scott: I agree with that too. IMHO, one, who wants to write an official paper, should just discuss it with all essential contributors in the thread (publicly in the same thread or privately) and agree on the author list, thank MO, include the link to the thread into the paper and go ahead. However, he is free to deviate from this procedure in any way as long as he stays within normal academic practices and common sense and no official policy should be made, much less enforced.

    Anyway, I apologize for the distraction from the main topic :). As long as we do not try to create a mess of unenforceable laws around MO's name and policies, it is OK. Just beware of lawyers. Once I came to a lawyer's office and asked the guy to draft a will that would say "Everything I legally own by the moment of death goes to my daughter". He concocted some long combination of thereofs and thereins, which, when I deciphered it and brought it to some equivalent of the disjunctive normal form was self-contradictory. Good luck with moving to the new platform! I've seen it done on AoPS twice. If you manage to get things work (not legal things, but LaTeX, etc.) on the first test run, I'll be truly amazed.
    • CommentAuthorquid
    • CommentTimeMay 29th 2013

    @fedja: glad to hear we are not in serious disagreement :-) It is likely true that in various scenarios some legal action would not be the best or a even good way to proceed. The main purpose of my examples was just to point out that there could be cases where it is undesirable that somebody uses the name MO. And, to think about what could be done about them (if they should arise) in particular regarding if some preemptive (legal) safety measure seems useful seems like a good idea to me (or at least it does not seem like a bad idea).

    Also, I have nothing against, it could be even very good, some compilation of MO content, I only mentioned the combination of it pretending to be "official" and at the same time being really bad as a problem.


    Nobody wants to deal with the legal side of things but it's something we can't avoid.

    (MO as coauthor) [...] I don't understand why the legal entity MO should have any opinion about this or take any action with regard to it.

    The issue, I think, is that permission to use the MathOverflow name is now (legally) necessary and therefore somebody may ask for it. Do we need to prepare for this? The ethics are a non-issue but the laws can be tricky. My conclusions were discussed above; anyone is welcome to do more research about this. There are tons of little things to worry about here, especially in connection with 501c3 requirements which put some restrictions on what MathOverflow can do.

    Common sense seems to work well for now. I don't think we need to do anything until somebody asks. We are protected to a limited extent from people using the MathOverflow name in illegitimate ways. (For example, I'm pretty sure we won't get in trouble with the IRS if someone else makes a political campaign contribution under the name MathOverflow.) As far as I can tell, there is no need for additional protection of the MathOverflow name (and I don't know why there would be interest in doing that). We also should avoid giving blanket authorizations to use the MathOverflow name or make vague promises in that direction unless we understand the ramifications. (That's a "rule" for board members, not for community members.)

    If you want to use the MathOverflow name for something, just ask! We'll check if that puts the company in legal trouble and grant permission accordingly.

    • CommentAuthorHenry Cohn
    • CommentTimeMay 29th 2013

    I thought (and still think, but I'm not a lawyer) that if you license content to MO, there's nothing stopping you from re-licensing it elsewhere under different terms. In particular, I don't think content authors are subject to the constraints of the attribution page.

    I certainly think this is how it should work, and the CC BY-SA license in no way prohibits other licenses in addition, but it would be best to clarify or revise the terms of service for MO 2.0. The current SE terms of service say explicitly that the specific attribution requirements apply to using your own content and not just other people's. It's not clear to me exactly what this means (one interpretation would be that by using the site you are agreeing to the terms of service and thereby restricting your ability to re-license your own contributions). I assume this doesn't really matter to the SE team, in which case changing the terms of service should be fine, but it's a little worrisome that it apparently mattered enough for someone to insert the "whether such Subscriber Content was created by You or others" clause. It certainly looks like the terms of service are trying to forbid re-using your own contributions without crediting the stackexchange site, and the only legal question is whether they have left loopholes.


    I just got a reply from the SE team. They confirm that the attribution requirements are in no way intended to remove any copyrights from the authors and they are free to relicense and reuse their content as they see fit.

    The original author still owns the copyright and they are free to do whatever they wish with the original work. You own your work always and forever under copyright law. We have not nor can not take that away from you.

    Take a look at the below from the Math meta site and let me know if you have any further questions.

    How can I make my contributions to Public Domain under my specified license in Account Deletion?

    - Stack Exchange Team

    (However, I don't think that post on has any legal weight as a clarification of the SE TOS.)


    Francois, the link is incorrect.


    Thanks Asaf, it should be fixed now.

    • CommentAuthorHenry Cohn
    • CommentTimeMay 30th 2013

    That's great. It would be worth clarifying the terms of service to avoid any legal ambiguity, but I'm glad to hear everyone's on the same page.

    @quid: I cannot of course respond for Dan, so I will just express my viewpoint here. Of course, it is most natural, polite, etc. to make sure someone who asked a question is the first to know about a write-up of an answer. Probably, in some ideal universe, even in the form of asking for their consent for such a write-up. Such a consent, I strongly believe though, should be granted instantly, and realistically should be assumed; asking in this situation is a nice gesture. [I personally would not be concerned in either situation you are describing, either someone writing a paper answering a question of mine (and only letting me know once the paper is finished), or someone writing a paper that among other things uses my answer to a question they asked me. As long as it is acknowledged, one way or the other, it is just fine.]
    • CommentAuthorquid
    • CommentTimeMay 30th 2013

    @Vladimir Dotsenko: Thank you for the detailed reply. Since your 'ideal' scenario seems relatively easy to achieve (except non-responsive OP, which seems like an exception), wouldn't it be nice to agree that general MO-etiquette is such that it is 'ideal' (as done in the specific situation in fact).

    But since I never ask anything it is not a personal concern for me, and being pseudonymous and all I might not be well placed, regardless. It was just surprising for me, so thanks again for the elaboration. Certainly one can have quite differing and equally valid points of view on this matter.

    @quid: My pleasure. I think it is extremely good to be able to agree to disagree, while acknowledging validity of each other's viewpoints :-)