One of the core principles under which Wikipedia and all other Wikimedia Foundation projects operate is that the knowledge contributed by hundreds of thousands of volunteers shouldn’t be locked into our servers. People should be able to re-use and re-purpose it in countless useful ways, commercial or non-commercial, to ensure that our work reaches the largest possible number of people. And from online mirrors to DVD editions to printed books to mobile versions, this basic principle has allowed knowledge to flow freely across all media.
When authors don’t make an explicit licensing choice, this isn’t possible: as an author, copyright law gives you maximal “protection”, unless you grant usage rights to others. Because the Wikimedia projects are an open collaboration, this grant of rights is requested from all contributors: When you make an edit to Wikipedia or most of our other projects, you’re asked to release it under a license that gives others, essentially, the right to use it for any purpose, as long as they provide credit to the authors and make any improvements freely available.
There are standard licensing documents that enumerate the rights and obligations of re-users. When Wikipedia started in January 2001, the project chose the GNU Free Documentation License (GFDL) developed for freely usable software documentation. The idea of giving information other than software freely away in this fashion was still relatively novel at the time, and so it made sense to adopt a license that had been developed by the free software community, which at the time could already look back on a long tradition of sharing cultural works freely.
However, because it was developed specifically for (typically printed) documentation, the GFDL contains many passages that aren’t relevant to an online work like Wikipedia, and it also contains obligations that, when taken literally, are quite onerous. For example, it requires that the full text of the license accompany every copy of the work, and it also requires that the section entitled “history” be included with each copy. (For Wikipedia, a massively edited work, this history of changes is often much larger than the work itself.) While Wikipedia has developed a long practice of interpreting this language to facilitate easy re-use, the literal text of the license has baffled many re-users and confused them about what they can and cannot do.
In 2002, a newly formed non-profit organization called Creative Commons released a set of standardized licensing agreements to flexibly grant rights to re-users (the right to make copies, the right to commercial use, the right to distribute modified versions of a document, etc.). These licensing agreements have found rapid adoption by a growing community of authors. For example, the popular photo-sharing site Flickr integrated the option to choose one of the Creative Commons licenses directly into its uploading interface, and thousands of users have granted more permissive rights to re-users than standard copyright would give. Last month, Flickr celebrated that more than 100 million photos had been uploaded under one of the CC licenses.
Importantly, some of the CC licenses are significantly more restrictive than what Wikimedia permits: unlike Wikimedia, they restrict commercial re-use, or limit the creation of derivatives. (In the case of a photo, that would include embedding the photo into a video sequence, for example.) One license, however, is very similar to the GNU Free Documentation License in its fundamental spirit and intent: the Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License.
Unlike the GFDL, CC-BY-SA allows simply referencing the license text instead of including it with each copy, and it does not require copying an entire history of changes with each document. And, it’s not a license written for software documentation, but for any kind of work. Moreover, it’s been specifically adapted to many international jurisdictions, and there are official translations in many languages. A more detailed comparison is available.
Because many people consider it more suitable for works other than software documentation than the GFDL, it’s also been widely adopted. Projects like WikiEducator, Citizendium, the Encyclopedia of Earth, the Encyclopedia of Life, and many others use CC-BY-SA as a content license. While GFDL and CC-BY-SA are very similar, text under one license cannot be integrated into text under another. This incompatibility barrier has presented a growing problem: As other communities have started to share knowledge freely, Wikimedia has lacked interoperability to be able to take from them, and give to them.
As early as 2004, first discussions began about harmonizing the Wikimedia license. Last year, the Free Software Foundation released a new version of the GFDL, 1.3, which specifically allows massively collaborative websites like the Wikimedia projects to also license content under CC-BY-SA. This option was developed by the Free Software Foundation in answer to a request by the Wikimedia Foundation. The request included a commitment by the Wikimedia Foundation to consult its community of volunteers before actually implementing any change.
After months of open discussion and development of the specific licensing terms under which Wikimedia content will be available, the Wikimedia community is now encouraged to vote on a proposal for updating the Wikimedia Foundation licensing terms on projects which currently use the GFDL. Rather than eliminating the GFDL entirely, the proposal will retain it where possible, while also making content available under CC-BY-SA and allowing it to be imported. If the proposal is implemented, licensing terms on all projects in all languages will be standardized where the GFDL is currently use. This standardization will also create clear and understandable terms and conditions for re-users who want to remix information from our projects.
In order to vote, users who have made more than 25 edits prior to March 15, 2009 on any Wikimedia project can visit a special page which will transfer them to a third party server (the page is linked from a notice on top of all pages for logged in users). The server is administered by Software in the Public Interest, Inc. (SPI) to guarantee the integrity of the vote. The vote will be tallied by a licensing committee made of Wikimedia volunteers. It will be concluded by May 3, 2009. After the vote result is published, the Board of Trustees of the Wikimedia Foundation will consult regarding the outcome of the vote and next steps.
The Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees has published a clear position statement: “The Board has evaluated possible licensing options for Wikimedia material, and believes that this proposal is the best available path towards achieving our collective goal to collect, develop and disseminate educational material, and make it available to people everywhere, free of charge, in perpetuity.”
Deputy Director, Wikimedia Foundation
Other coverage: Creative Commons weblog<