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Wikipedia and the GFDL January 1, 2008

Posted by keito in : Wikipedia , comments closed

Wikipedia, since its very inception, has used the GNU Free Documentation License (GFDL, covered in an earlier post) to license its articles and many of its images. Compared to other, more traditional websites that offer their content under a less free, less open license, this is a big step — and it’s not an overstatement to say that Wikipedia exemplifies, if not leads, the whole gamut of user-contributed websites today. What does the GFDL mean for Wikipedia?

First, how exactly is Wikipedia content licensed? Here is the official license text from the Copyrights page:

Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, with no Front-Cover Texts, and with no Back-Cover Texts.

As you can see, Wikipedia does not use the controversial Invariant Sections clause that the GFDL permits — that means there are no pages on Wikipedia detailing its philosophy that must be kept in derivatives (such as other websites that reuse Wikipedia content).

What does Wikipedia’s license mean for the average contributor? When you goto a Wikipedia page, hit “Edit this page”, make your changes, then finally hit “Save page”, you are licensing your contributions under the GFDL. This is because the edit page, similar in spirit to “clickwrap” licenses found on the Internet and in software, contains the text, “You agree to license your contributions under the GFDL” along with a footer with the text quoted above.

Now I expect that the average visitor to Wikipedia who makes a quick contribution (such as a spelling fix or changes some figures here or there) does not realize this fact. This might be a little problematic for Wikipedia, as there is no “I agree” button, or any other user interface element (such as a checkbox) that forces the user to agree to this license. In the past, the courts have found this to be a problem — in Specht v. Netscape Communications Corp. (2001), the court ruled that the Netscape license was not enforceable as there was no explicit “I agree” button for the user to click before downloading the software. The changes needed to ensure Wikipedia’s safety might be minimal — simply by preceding the text with ‘By clicking “save page” below, you…,’ for example. It would be interesting to see whether this is actually a problem legally.

What, then, does the GFDL mean for the established Wikipedian? Firstly, it means that there’s a slight learning curve — getting accustomed to the GFDL and the various restrictions and freedoms it poses is something that can only be learned through reading through the rather thorough documentation on Wikipedia itself. Second, it means that a lot of care must be taken to preserve edit histories.

Edit histories are the information you get when you click on the “History” tab of an article on Wikipedia; basic information about each revision to an article, such as the user name (or IP address, in case of anonymous contributors) and date and time of each revision, are presented. This list is necessary for copyright purposes; because Wikipedia articles are not copyrighted by the Wikimedia Foundation, or any other single entity, but by its contributors (due to standard Berne Convention rules), the list of contributors must be preserved throughout revisions in case somebody wishes to relicense an article (although this is unheard of as of yet) or more frequently, an article needs to be cited.

The preservation of edit histories is usually carried out automatically by the MediaWiki software; however, when merging two pages into one, for example, the origins of each portion of text must be noted on the attached discussion page of the resulting article.

Of course, this preservation of edit histories is not a burden associated exclusively with the GFDL; any Creative Commons license requiring attribution would also have the same burdens.

It turns out that the real restrictions of the GFDL (as used by Wikipedia, without the invariant sections clause) are only in the redistribution stage, the requirement to include the full text of the GNU Free Documentation License along with redistributed copies being the main one. Even if this is the only problem, it is a good enough reason to switch Wikipedia’s license — switching to a Creative Commons license will greatly increase the utility of Wikipedia content.

Citizendium chooses CC-BY-SA December 24, 2007

Posted by keito in : News, Websites , comments closed

Citizendium, the fledgling semi-user editable online encyclopedia that aims to unseat Wikipedia from its cyber-throne by enforcing strict editorial guidelines, has chosen to license its articles under the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (CC-BY-SA) license, according to a press release.

This doesn’t come as much of a surprise — Citizendium has some articles that are forks (copies that are subsequently modified) of their counterparts on Wikipedia, which is licensed under the GFDL. Since the Wikimedia Foundation has announced plans to work with the Free Software Foundation and the Creative Commons to make the GFDL compatible with the CC-BY-SA license, it’s only natural that Citizendium should go ahead and make their content available under the Creative Commons license. (For the time being, though, they are required to keep the originally Wikipedia-based articles licensed under the GFDL due to the viral provisions of the license.)

Apparently, however, there was a huge discussion among Citizendium editors on whether to use a non-commercial license (in this case it would be CC-BY-SA-NC) or not. The discussion (available in paraphrased form on Citizendium) seems to revolve around the practical reasons to choose one license over the other, such as distribution to those without Internet access.

What’s notable is that one of the major reasons against the GFDL/CC-BY-SA seems to be “we don’t want Wikipedia to reuse our articles,” along with a general feeling of hostility towards allowing other websites to redistribute Citizendium content. This seems to say a lot about Citizendium and its real thoughts on Open Source and free licensing — are they really out there to share a good encyclopedia, or are they just doing it to spite Wikipedia?

While I applaud Citizendium editors for ultimately choosing the CC-BY-SA approach, and thus allowing greater redistribution and reuse of its content, there seems to be a troubling sense of exclusivity among the Citizendium community. I can’t help but compare this with the Wikipedia community, whose foundations are built on selflessness and creating an encyclopedia for the (actual) better good.

Wikipedia to be compatible with Creative Commons December 6, 2007

Posted by keito in : News, Wikipedia , comments closed

Wikimedia, the non-profit organization that runs Wikipedia, the Free Software Foundation, and the Creative Commons have agreed to make the GFDL (the GNU Free Documentation License, the license that Wikipedia is licensed under) compatible with the Creative Commons licenses.

The blog post linked above is sort of inaccurate, calling it a “switch” to Creative Commons, but the real deal can be found in the official resolution from the Wikimedia Foundation.

This comes as a welcome development for Wikipedia – the GFDL has always been a dark, kept-under-the-rug feature of Wikipedia, as it has caused some well-known inconveniences to the Wikipedia community and those wanting to reuse Wikipedia content. (I’ll cover the details in a later post.)

So what exactly is the difference between the GFDL and the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (CC-BY-SA) license? We’ll cover that next time.