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14 April 2009, 14:28

Wikipedia Community voting on change of licence

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The Wikipedia Community has begun voting on whether to change over to a Creative Commons licence. Introducing the "Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license" (CC-BY-SA) is aimed at making it easier to reuse content from Wikipedia and its sister projects and at enabling the integration of other free content. Existing content is also to be relicensed.

The vote, now open, ends on the 3rd of May and all registered Wikipedia editors who carried out 25 edits or more to any Wikimedia project prior to March 15th 2009 are eligible to participate. This limitation was specified in order to prevent abuse of the vote, but it's much less stringent than in the earlier elections to the board of the Wikimedia Foundation. The result, however, won't be final as only after the result is announced will the board decide whether the draft decision will come into force or be revised.

The vote is one of the most historic decisions by the Wikimedia Foundation regarding its future orientation. "Creative Commons licenses" did not exist in 2001, when Wikipedia was founded. Instead, Wikipedia adopted the "GNU Free Documentation License" (GFDL), which was really intended for the distribution of the documentation for free software. Consequently there were many problems with any reuse of its content. For example, the licence conditions required that the complete text of the licence be appended and this made the onward distribution of individual Wikipedia articles in printed products impractical. The requirement to name main authors also presented a big problem with Wikipedia articles that in some cases had undergone hundreds of edits by different authors. Another problem was how Creative Commons licensed images could be incorporated, because the two licences were mutually incompatible.

Wikimedia's founder, Jimmy Wales, was already calling for a changeover years ago to a Creative Commons licence and, in December 2007, the board of the charitable foundation decided to go ahead with it. However, since the Wikimedia Foundation itself holds no rights to the content of Wikipedia or other projects, the plans first had to be agreed by the Free Software Foundation (FSF). The organisation published a new version of the GFDL in December. As Wikimedia's Deputy Director Erik Möller, who is organizing the change of licence, explained "This explicitly permits the licensing of content in wiki-type Community projects under CC-BY-SA". Like the GFDL, this licence permits commercial reuse of content, requiring that it be distributed under the same conditions.

When questioned by heise online Möller said the Wikimedia Foundation believes the change of licence does not require that each author assent to it, because "in our eyes they have already done so by agreeing to licensing under the GFDL, which also explicitly permits the publication of altered versions of the GFDL that are in the spirit of the previous version". Under the present proposal, existing Wikipedia content will in future be subject to both the GFDL and CC-BY-SA licences, while newly added content will be subject exclusively to the Creative Commons licence. Exceptions to this are images that were uploaded under GFDL 1.2 only, to the exclusion of later versions, and these will probably be deleted from the Project's pages. Möller says "The guidelines for third-party users will be standardised as part of the change of licence, if it does take place. Under the proposed terms of exploitation, the minimum prerequisite for the naming of authors will be an active link in every medium – where possible – or a URL linking to the original article with its version history".

Although the change of licence is almost entirely supported within the Community, not all Wikipedia users are happy about the proposals of the Wikimedia Foundation. Critics are expressing doubts about the legality of some clauses. One problem is the correct classification of the licensed content of third parties. Many authors of free content set store by having their names mentioned on each occasion of publication, but within Wikipedia photographers are credited only by means of a link to an image description page. Critics fear that, when third parties disseminate Wikipedia articles, the author's credit will be visible only via circuitous routes. Nor, they say, is there any guarantee that Wikimedia will always be online. In the discussion, Möller is arguing for improving the crediting of holders of rights within the Wikipedia article.

The correct application of the Wikipedia licence conditions is currently also the subject of a lawsuit in Germany. Alvar Freude, an internet activist, received a cease-and-desist letter in early April for allegedly having distributed images from Wikipedia without a licence. Freude is contesting the accusations.

Torsten Kleinz


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