The power of free knowledge

Photo: Lane Hartwell, CC-BY-SA

After the recent SOPA/PIPA blackout, many media outlets characterized the debate as a battle between Silicon Valley and Hollywood for clout in Washington DC. Lost in this myopic narrative is the truth: the millions of regular Internet users who called and wrote their congressional representatives were giving a collective voice to their individual demands that Congress not enact legislation, written by industry, that would harm the free and open web. They spoke up to support those innovative websites and online communities that are possible only through a free exchange of ideas and information.

Congress, the media, and many others do not always understand or appreciate the meaning and power of the free-knowledge movement, nor the community that nurtures and supports it. For this reason, we offer a summary on free knowledge. Much will be familiar to Wikimedia project contributors and our peers in the free-knowledge community, but we hope to say something useful for our other readers — and legislators — who have not previously explored the issue or who have found themselves surprised by the backlash when they have ignored it.

As you can guess, we are quite protective of the Internet, which is a great facilitator of the free-knowledge movement, and we are suspicious when others seek to ram through legislation in their private interests without proper reflection on the values that are vital to our mission.

What you need to know about free knowledge

The mission of the free-knowledge community is to create and share informational resources and cultural works in full compliance with copyright laws. When offering works to the world, however, their creators guarantee five freedoms: the freedom to use, the freedom to study, the freedom to copy, the freedom to redistribute, and the freedom to improve those works.[1] Authors, artists, photographers, researchers, and others who have joined the worldwide free-knowledge community are committed to these freedoms, and in turn they produce media that hundreds of millions of people can use. The result: freely-licensed and valuable materials for education, business, technology, science and culture around the world.

The creators in the free-knowledge community are in fact copyright holders, just like the creators in the media industry, but unlike most industries, creators in the free-knowledge community volunteer to promote progress and innovation by releasing their content under a free license that provides their creations to the world for no cost.

The free-knowledge community is worldwide, diverse and growing. There are nearly 200 million free-knowledge works now available, and the amount of new, freely-licensed content is growing rapidly.[2]  Many organizations[3] now have large repositories of freely-licensed content, including C-Span,[4] YouTube,[5] Vimeo,[6] and Flickr.[7] Wikipedia has more than 21 million articles in 283 languages.[8] The Wikipedia community is built on the work of hundreds of thousands of contributors from around the world. Wikimedia Commons hosts over 12 million files, including more than 10 million images and photographs, more than 100 thousand sound files, and more than 20 thousand scans of freely-licensed and public domain documents.[9]
 These works are all available to citizens, businesses, libraries, researchers and cultural centers at no cost. Research often begins with Wikipedia’s summaries and lists of references linking to primary sources.[10] Specialists rely on free knowledge alongside Internet search engines and scholarly publication databases. Libraries contribute to the free-knowledge community to reach new patrons.[11] Educators rely on written material and photographs to prepare their classes at minimal costs, wherever they are in the world.

Free knowledge gives businesses and entrepreneurs low-cost access to extensive background information on numerous topics. Businesses save money on research and have instant access to information from a wide range of perspectives.[12]  Free knowledge is especially beneficial for small businesses, which could not otherwise afford comprehensive research material: it reduces the barriers to entry and encourages innovation.[13]

Free content is commonly integrated into other services. Wikipedia articles are reused in commercial products and services,[14] ranging from Facebook and Amazon.com, to BBC websites.[15] Thousands of images from Commons have been republished in books, newspapers and other media.[16] Journalists have instant access to informative and dynamic photographs from around the world, and software developers may incorporate media, encyclopedia content or dictionary entries into their applications at no cost.[17] Free knowledge gives researchers a body of work to learn more about their areas of interest and to collaborate on innovative new theories or discoveries.[18]

As noted, the commitment to collaboration and sharing is at the core of the free-knowledge movement. These ideals are not new, and they are designed to complement and benefit our current copyright system by providing opportunities for new original works and improvements on existing works.[19] The Internet today must facilitate continued innovation based on freely-licensed and public domain works: it is ultimately a tool for enabling this important interaction, communication, and collaboration, which spur innovation and enhance the free-knowledge movement. For this reason, we urge readers and Congress to consider the values of an open and free Internet, which complements all the benefits of the free-knowledge movement for our citizens, businesses, libraries, researchers and cultural centers.

Please take the time to learn more by reading about free content on Wikipedia or visiting Creative Commons.[20]

Geoff Brigham, General Counsel
Stephen LaPorte, Legal Intern

 


  1. In full, “free” means “the freedom to use the work and enjoy the benefits of using it; the freedom to study the work and to apply knowledge acquired from it; the freedom to make and redistribute copies, in whole or in part, of the information or expression; the freedom to make changes and improvements, and to distribute derivative works.” See http://freedomdefined.org/Definition
  2. In 2003, the Creative Commons licenses were only one year old and had fewer than 1 million works. After eight years, the number of works has increased to over 400 million total works in 2010. Over 40 percent of those works are fully free or open. Mike Linksvayer, The Power of Open: over 400 million CC-licensed works, with increasing freedom (June 2011)
  3. In 2011, Creative commons collected stories from members of the free-knowledge community, available at http://wiki.creativecommons.org/The_Power_of_Open/Text
  4. C-Span releases videos under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license on YouTube.
  5. YouTube now allows any creator to license their original content under a Creative Commons Attribution license. See Jane Park, YouTube launches support for CC BY and a CC library featuring 10,000 videos (June 2011)
  6. Vimeo allows you to browse videos licensed using Creative Commons: “Our members love using Creative Commons licenses to rework, remix, and reimagine, which is why we built a whole new section to help you discover videos available with Creative Commons licenses.” See http://vimeo.com/new
  7. Flickr allows users to license their photographs under any Creative Commons license. Millions of photographs have been released under free licenses. See http://www.flickr.com/creativecommons
  8. Key Facts About Wikipedia, January 2012. Statistics from all languages of Wikipedia are available at http://stats.wikimedia.org/EN/TablesWikipediaZZ.htm
  9. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Commons:MIME_type_statistics
  10. Sook Lim, How and Why Do College Students Use Wikipedia?, Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology (November 2009); additional surveys were analyzed in 2010, finding that college students continue to use Wikipedia as a research source. See Alison J. Head and Michael B. Eisenberg, How today’s college students use Wikipedia for course–related research. First Monday, Volume 15, Number 3 – 1 March 2010
  11. Steve Kolowich, Wielding Wikipedia, Inside Higher Ed (April 5, 2011)
  12. A study found that higher edit frequencies on a firm’s Wikipedia article correlated with reduced analyst errors, suggesting that edit frequency was an informative proxy to quantify the public’s attention to a firm’s information. Amir Rubin and Eran Rubin, Informed Investors and the Internet (2010), Journal of Business Finance & Accounting, 37: 841–865. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-5957.2010.02187.x
  13. See generally Wouter Tebbens, Hinde ten Berge, David Jacovkis, The Knowledge Society: a freedom-centered perspective, Conference Paper presented at the Free Culture Research Conference, 2010 Berlin
  14. See Wikipedia’s guidelines for reusing content at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Reuse
  15. BBC Music, BBC Wildlife Finder, and other BBC sites integrate content from Wikipedia. Yves Raimond, Tom Scott, Silver Oliver, Patrick Sinclair and Michael Smethurst, Use of Semantic Web Technologies on the BBC Web Sites, Linking Enterprise Data (2010). Facebook also republishes Wikipedia content. Jane Park, Wikipedia on new Facebook community pages (April 2010); for a list of hundreds of websites that reuse Wikipedia content, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Mirrors_and_forks/All
  16. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Commons_as_a_media_source
  17. Hundreds of applications on the Apple, Google, and Amazon app stores reuse freely licensed content from Wikimedia projects.
  18. http://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/Research
  19. Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 begins with a goal: “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts….” The free-knowledge community voluntarily grants their exclusive rights to a public commons to promote follow-on innovation, competitive imitation, cultural heritage, the democratic process, and other benefits of freedom. Indeed the Supreme Court has historically held that the Copyright Clause’s ultimate goal is to “stimulate artistic creativity for the general public good.” Twentieth Century Music Corp v. Aiken, 422 U.S. 151, 156 (1975).
  20. Organizations involved in the free-knowledge movement include Creative Commons, the Free Software Foundation, Public Knowledge, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Open Knowledge Foundation, and Knowledge Ecology International.
Categories: Free Knowledge, Legal
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4 Comments on The power of free knowledge

Dr Ian McCormick 3 years

Community Film ‘book’: Amazon has removed plagiarized product description and made it unavailable in its own catalogue. http://cmactivist.blogspot.com/2012/04/how-to-republish-free-material-from.html?spref=tw

NaBUru38 3 years

@pill: Or perhaps an experienced Wikimedia contributor.

pill 3 years

if a 1.5 page blog post has 20 footnotes, you can be fairly sure it was written by a lawyer. #bloggingwisdoms

Angel Aliaga 3 years

There isn’t the bibliography of Taro Yamane

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