the big switch

Recently, Wikimedia had a community-wide vote, and the Board of Directors subsequently passed a resolution, switching from the GNU Free Documentation License, or GFDL (what the contents of Wikipedia and its sister projects, except for Wikinews & bits of Commons, are currently licensed under) to dual-licensing with Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike (or CC-BY-SA), which is also a free content license but is generally friendlier for reuse purposes. (Note that this is not the CC license that states NC, or no commercial use allowed; as always we welcome commercial reuse).

You can read all about the vote & resolution in this week’s Signpost; and you can get more information about the switch, including the temporary switch clause in the new version of the GFDL (1.3) that made this possible, in the previous stories that are linked from this article (as a side note, I’m rather pleased about the ‘Post’s coverage of this issue; this is the main summary article).

I know most of the Wikimedians reading know about this already; it’s been a big topic of discussion in our community, with discussions for months (years, even) and voting for a month. But this rather momentous switch — Wikipedia’s free license is one of its defining and most important characteristics — has been underreported elsewhere.

This is BIG NEWS, and librarians, content producers, and anyone who works with information should care. The licensing path that Wikimedia, as one of the biggest free content providers out there, chooses to take has deep implications not just for our compatibility with anyone else (from the academic to the popular) who is producing free content but also for the direction of free content in general. The GFDL is notoriously hard to work with, and as a result many sites have chosen a CC-BY license instead; this move means that those sites will be compatible with Wikimedia.

But many sites chose a GFDL license, in part because they wanted to work with Wikimedia. As SJ points out, those sites now have a very limited timespan (til August 1) to switch if they want to, under the limited provision in GFDL 1.3.

What this means is if you work with a GFDL-licensed wiki community, please take a moment soon to consider if you want to dual-license or not. Not dual-licensing means you will not be able to share in the future (by importing or exporting) your content with Wikimedia sites, which would be a shame. (If this is confusing, think of copyright: we don’t import copyright-restricted text either. If your site is only available under the GFDL, and we are requiring dual-licensing with GFDL & CC-BY-SA in future, that won’t work. Confusingly, sites that are only CC-BY-SA can import into Wikipedia projects in the future; this is because of how the GFDL clause was written). And as for why you’d want to share… remember that Wikimedia’s content is not just encyclopedia articles; we also have millions of photos, collaboratively written textbooks and curricula, dictionary definitions, and more; and much of that content has come from people sharing their work that was developed elsewhere, and we are hoping to make it all easier to use elsewhere too. There are directions on how to switch here.

(As an aside, it’s not really surprising to me this is underreported, as this has been a terribly confusing process, with multiple legal minds and countless discussion-hours spent. Licensing in general is hard; it’s taken me a couple of years to get up to speed, and I care about it; many people may have just chosen Wikipedia’s license as a default. But that doesn’t mean that as a community we shouldn’t try our very best to explain and communicate this change, which gets at the heart of what we do.  The FAQ page on Meta may help; it at least explains why the dual-licensing proviso isn’t bi-directional.)

In the end, I hope that this will mean a much smoother path for reusers of Wikimedia content, from those who write books about the site (I have something of a personal interest in this relicensing), to those who reprint compliations of articles. It’s an exciting time for open, free content.

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