psa: wikipedia copyright for dummies

Last night I was happily editing & came across [[Edward Eager]], an old-fashioned children’s author, very popular in the ’60s, and one of my favorites. (Further scoping reveals that I had edited this article once before in 2005, but had never gone back to it). At any rate, for those of you who know something about children’s literature, this is one of the dreary backwaters of Wikipedia — almost all articles about children’s books, authors (that aren’t J.K. Rowling), genres etc. need some serious work. I figure it’s a safe bet to say most current editors don’t have kids. (Please, if you feel like working on something, this really is a great area).

At any rate, our friend Edward Eager had an identified copyright violation in the text that had been sitting there since the 2nd revision, made in 2005. 3 years, a couple of dozen editors, and no one had picked it out, despite a copyvio tag on the talk page that was placed last year. I removed the offending text, which is the thing to do in such cases, and then sat down to figure out why so many people (including me, back in 2005) had ignored it.

The text was a reprint of a review in a magazine. The text above the review, in the body of the article, read:

[The following review is reprinted with permission from Notes from the Windowsill, an electronic journal of book reviews. Copyright 1998 Wendy E. Betts. Reproduction for personal and non-profit use is permitted only if this copyright notice is retained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission. Mail with comments or questions.]

Clearly this is the confusing part. If it had been a straight copy of a website with no attribution, someone else might have picked it up. Here’s the problem: Attribution like this is all well and good if you’re writing for, say, a magazine and want to reprint someone else’s work. This is fine attribution. But Wikipedia is not a magazine. It’s a freely licensed body of text that is reused by hundreds and hundreds of other websites, print publications, etc., for both commercial use and non- — and that is absolutely fine with us. You see why a reprint, that is not itself licensed in accordance with Wikipedia, is not acceptable.

When we say “Wikipedia is licensed under the GFDL”, what we mean is, as a site, when you contribute to us, you agree to give up control over certain aspects of your inherent authorial copyrights(1) in favor of the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, which specify that anyone may reuse Wikipedia’s text in part or in whole, as long as they follow certain other terms, the two most important of which are a) attribution, and b) their text must also be licensed under the GDFL.

Reuse is a radical and poorly understood concept, and its finer points (how to attribute a corporate-authored work, say)(2) is the subject of much ongoing argument both within the Wikimedia and Free Culture communities, particularly since Wikimedia is now on a path to adopt the Creative Commons license in addition to the GFDL, a move of compatibility that has been a long time coming.

But ignoring that, reuse is a radical concept. It’s a big part — maybe the main part — of why Wikipedia does what it does. (Yes, besides the part where someone has to intimately detail every episode of every cult science fiction show around). Reuse means: you are donating your work to the greater good where you have determined that you don’t know, in advance, what that greater good is or what it looks like. When shaggy-haired copyright crusaders talk about free as in freedom!, this is what they are talking about, not the free-as-in-beer aspect — no cost necessary to access — that is also important,(3) but not the heart of the matter.

So, that’s a long explanation for why a perfectly good (though not encyclopedic) review, that had perfectly good (if not quite up to the manual of style) attribution is not ok to put in a Wikipedia article. Wikipedia: not a reprint service (I’ve also seen people reposting journal articles). Maybe someone should start an online reprint/knowledge sharing service for people to donate their copyrighted works to…. but we’re not it. We are, in the end, something much more interesting.

Teaching this perhaps-unintuitive conception of copyright, making people understand what all the funny letters stand for — and removing copyright violations in a clear and unambiguous and kind way — is certainly one of the site’s big challenges, and I am not sure where to begin.(4) We’ve made great strides since 2005 — if such a thing were placed today, it would certainly be removed — but have a long way to go yet.


1. At this point in time in U.S. intellectual property law, you as a creator get copyright automatically upon creating something, no little (c) symbol necessary. The reason people register their copyrights (c) is so they can enforce those rights more easily.
2. It’s a little irrelevant, so I haven’t brought it up in the Wikimedia debates, but it should be noted that how to cite/attribute a corporate-authored work has not been satisfactorily solved for “normal” copyrighted works, either, e.g. in library cataloging.
3. And almost certainly responsible for why Wikipedia is so big.
4. Very few people understand “normal” copyright. Most lawyers don’t.

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8 Responses to psa: wikipedia copyright for dummies

  1. susansbeeswax says:
  2. rwx says:

    I figure it’s a safe bet to say most current editors don’t have kids. (Please, if you feel like working on something, this really is a great area).

    having a kid with a wikimedia editor is probably more time than i have to devote to editing, although it’s probably more fun than thinking about people’s horrible logical fallacies.

  3. susansbeeswax says:

    As a webzine editor of two sites, I’m constantly shocked at how little original content writers know about copyright. A lot of them seem to think they still own the piece after they sell it/get it published. The publishers all disabuse them of this in short order. Except the anarchist publishers who are invariably ‘copyright is retained by the author’, as are my two sites.

  4. susansbeeswax says:

    © being, of course, different from GFDL… I just woke up from a nap. Brain not firing on all cylinders yet. 🙂

  5. brassratgirl says:

    Well, under the GFDL copyright *is* retained by the author… that’s the tricky part. 🙂 But yes, I agree — copyright is hard.

  6. brassratgirl says:

    I know of three babies that have been born to couples who met through or are both strongly involved in Wikipedia; but yes, that’s probably going to extremes. 🙂

  7. susansbeeswax says:

    Been a while since I read it & no one but y’all that I deal with use it. And the whole nap part. It’s hard, but endlessly fascinating. 🙂

  8. amomandagirl says:

    My son actually corrected an error in a children’s book entry. At age 5, IIRC.

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