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Wikipedia’s copyright January 5, 2008

Posted by keito in : Wikipedia , comments closed

Today, stories of high school students pasting in content from Wikipedia into their own essays and research projects abound. Some educators have thrown their hands up in the air, baffled by this whole “Internet” thing. Others have clamped down, forbidding the use of Wikipedia in the classroom and calling it an irrelevant information source.

While this plagiarism from Wikipedia may seem like child’s play, serious legal issues also play a part. As I’ve covered in this blog, Wikipedia content is not released into the public domain — by default, all content is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License, and the copyright remains under the ownership of each contributor.

This is further complicated by the fact that some contributors choose to unilaterally license their contributions under a freer license, such as into the public domain. Some users have also chosen to “dual-license” their contributions, under, say, the GFDL and the CC-BY-SA. These license indications are not shown on the contributions themselves; each user who decides to do this usually places this information on their “user page.”

There have been a number of cases in which individuals or groups have lifted Wikipedia content without attribution of any kind, essentially committing copyright infringement. One recent case was the case of George Orwel (sic.), a New York-based reporter who pasted a substantial amount of content from a Wikipedia article into his book, “Black Gold: The New Frontier in Oil for Investors.”

What complicated this matter was that the user who contributed a large portion of the text, Ydorb, had licensed his contributions into the public domain. Therefore, it would seem that this act of “plagiarism” was, in fact, lawful (albeit troubling coming from an experienced reporter). However, the nature of Wikipedia’s collaborative and cumulative editing meant that portions that had been contributed by other users, who unlike Ydorb had not released their contributions to the public domain, were still under their copyright. This is an issue present in all wikis — because content is not simply written by one user and left at that, the ownership of specific bits of text, rather than entire articles, becomes important.

While it may be easy for people (even reporters) to become complacent about Wikipedia copyright, the bottom line is that every contribution to Wikipedia is still covered by the same copyright that automatically covers any other creative work. A free license is not a license to do whatever you want; there are certain bounds, and users need to be educated about this.

Wikipedia and CC-BY-SA January 1, 2008

Posted by keito in : Wikipedia , comments closed

It’s been nearly a month since the Wikimedia Foundation announced compatibility of the CC-BY-SA license with the GFDL, but the details are still not clear.

Immediate reactions on the Wikimedia Foundation’s community mailing list, foundation-l, seemed positive overall but rather confused. Users wondered whether a license like CC-BY-SA and the GFDL (both of which have a “Share-Alike” clause, which essentially says that copies and derivatives must be made available under an identical license), could be made compatible, and whether a license switch would be legally enforceable. The latter is not an issue, as both the CC-BY-SA and GFDL contain clauses permitting the controlling bodies to upgrade the licenses without notifying licensors. There is precedent for this; for example, the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s now-defunct Open Audio License designates version 2 of itself as the CC-BY-SA license.

Members of the community were further confused by the inherent compatibility of the two licenses; the GFDL allows invariant sections, for example, which, they argued, is against the spirit of the CC-BY-SA license. This hasn’t yet been adequately discussed — even if it is legally possible to create a variant middle-ground of the two licenses that is compatible with older versions of both, that risks estranging content owners who published their content under a previous license. (Those using the invariant clause of the GFDL, for example, may not appreciate having even those sections licensed freely under a CC-BY-SA-like license.)

Since the actual process of conversion is taking place within the Free Software Foundation and Creative Commons, it’s not immediately clear to the average Wikimedian what is going where. My personal hope is that the two organizations will be able to come up with a new license that legally transitions existing GFDL (with no invariant sections) materials to CC-BY-SA in the not-so-far future. I also hope that people who have contributed content to Wikipedia in the past will be happy with the change; this should not be too much of a problem, since (1) most people do not really care about licenses and (2) the people who do care, or at least those who have voiced their opinion on foundation-l, appear to be in favor of a change.

There are some outstanding issues that have yet to be resolved though — those detailed above, and some issues to do with the Creative Commons organization itself. More than one longstanding Wikimedian has expressed his displeasure at the organization, calling it an organization whose purpose is for lawyer collaboration and self-promotion more than for the spread of free content. While I cannot tell if this is true, having no personal dealings with the organization, Creative Commons is rather successful with its public relations, so it’s not hard to imagine them worrying a lot about their public image. However, the overall effect of the Creative Commons movement, it seems, is overwhelmingly positive, and Wikipedia’s joining forces with them seems like a promising move (and as some members of the Wikimedia community mentioned, it also means that the Wikimedia Foundation will have a lot of leverage over the organization).

The Creative Commons licenses January 1, 2008

Posted by keito in : Licenses , comments closed

The Creative Commons family of licenses, created and administered by the Creative Commons organization founded by Lawrence Lessig, is a suite of licenses designed for easy use by both amateur and professional content creators around the world.

The Creative Commons licenses allow a great deal of freedom to modify, reuse, and redistribute content. Content creators can put a number of restrictions, or a combination on them, on their licenses. The restrictions are:

The entire number of combinations is 2^4 = 16; however, since the Share-Alike and No-Derivatives flags are mutually exclusive, four of those are invalid, and the last combination, no restrictions at all, is tantamount to releasing your content under the public domain, so is not a valid Creative Commons license. Also, licenses that do not have the Attribution clause used to exist, but have been phased out due to lack of demand.

Using these combinations, one can create the eleven Creative Commons licenses, which are named after their abbreviated restrictions: CC-BY-SA 3.0, for example. (3.0 is the version of the Creative Commons license; version 3.0 is the latest as of now.) Incidentally, this blog is licensed under the CC-BY-SA 3.0 license. That is, any derivatives or redistributions must be licensed under the same CC-BY-SA license, and must be attributed back to me.

The sheer power of the Creative Commons license comes partly from this — the ease of use with which content owners can license their content. You don’t need a law degree when licensing your content under these licenses; Creative Commons provides a clean, easy-to-use interface on their website that allows you to pick and match licenses according to your needs, and provides “human-readable” license deeds detailing, in very plain and simple language, the freedoms accorded by each Creative Commons license.

The Creative Commons licenses also have very high visibility on the Internet today. Not only are their icons professional-looking and recognizable from a distance, the sheer number of websites and services using their licenses is staggering. Some major users of Creative Commons include Flickr, the Wikimedia Commons, MIT OpenCourseWare, and soon Wikipedia. Furthermore, many service providers set Creative Commons as their default license (Blogger and even the Berkman Center’s blogging platform), coercing users who otherwise do not know or care about licenses to license their content under a Creative Commons license.

The advent of Creative Commons licenses is a welcome development for the open source community. More and more people are being introduced to the free licensing movement, and even large companies (including Microsoft with parts of its MSDN specifications and its MSDN Wiki) have begun to embrace this as well, further escalating this move. It’s reassuring to have one license framework that everybody can rely on and trust, and the stability and expertise of the Creative Commons organization can only help.