A briefing on Wikipedia, copyright and common misconceptions

Firstly, I will mention that I am neither a lawyer nor a representative of the Wikimedia Foundation. I am merely another volunteer editor with no particular position, but I feel I am experienced enough to briefly address a number of misconceptions.

Is there only one Wikipedia?

No. While it might be tempting to think of Wikipedia as being one encyclopædia available in multiple languages, the individual language Wikipedias are separate projects with their own separate editor communities, volunteer administrators, local policies, systemic leanings and deletion discussions. While content does get transferred (with translation) between them, they operate as separate projects.

All the Wikipedias, a few sister sites and Wikimedia Commons are hosted by the Wikimedia Foundation (with an M rather than a P). (The word wiki, by the way, is generic, having been introduced by Ward Cunningham and not by Wikimedia, hence it is also used by unaffiliated sites.)

Wikimedia Commons is a general repository for free content usable on all Wikimedia sites, more on this later.

Are the administrators of Wikipedia employed by the Wikimedia Foundation?

In general, no. Regular administrators are ordinary users who have been entrusted with potentially harmful but necessary powers by the communities. A bureaucrat is an administrator who has also been entrusted with the ability to grant administrator powers, though this should only be done through established procedures. Both of these apply only to one project.

The Wikimedia staff and Wikimedia steward powers apply across projects, and are much fewer in number, with maybe thirty of either group worldwide.

Is Wikipedia less reliable than other online sources?

That depends entirely on what other online sources you’re talking about. Wikipedia tends to be, somewhat unfairly, singled out as an example of online unreliablity; while anyone can put stuff on Wikipedia, anyone can put stuff on their own websites or on social media also. In fact, Wikipedia is on the whole quite good: though mistakes, hoaxes and promotional quackery do occasionally creep in, they are much more likely to be removed than if some person or company put them on their website.

That being said, don’t bet your life on Wikipedia’s reliability. Just because Wikipedia (or any random website) says something, does not make it true.

The reason why things should not be stated in academic papers or journalistic sources purely on the basis of saying so in Wikipedia is something called circular reporting (occasionally citogenesis following Randall Munroe): it risks errors or hoaxes becoming seemingly backed up by what ought to be an authoritative source, which makes it harder to ensure Wikipedia’s verifiability.

What is free content or free and open content, and how does it relate to Creative Commons?

Free content is content that can be used, edited and shared (with or without edits) by anyone, including commercially, as long as it remains free content and is attributed properly. In this context, free does not simply mean free of charge, but rather a freedom to do things with it. Wikimedia is devoted to remaining free content, so this limits what is allowed to be included.

Creative Commons offer a number of licence models, only some of which are fully free content in this sense. In particular, non-commerical and no derivatives restrictions are non‑free. Hence only certain Creative Commons licences are allowed on Wikimedia Commons.

Who owns the copyright to Wikipedia?

The copyright for Wikipedia is retained by individual editors. You can’t ask Wikimedia for permission to use content from Wikipedia. They can’t grant it any more than you can.

That said, any text content must be under the CC BY-SA except for the obvious things like short quotations. Adding anything else isn’t allowed. When submitting text to Wikipedia, you agree that any text which you wrote yourself can be used under the CC BY-SA and the GFDL.

This also means that Wikimedia cannot, generally speaking, change the licensing terms of Wikipedia, except as stipulated in the licence texts themselves. Hence offering Wikipedia under the CC BY-SA as well as the FDL could only be done due to the FSF adding such a clause to the FDL. This clause was strictly limited in scope and time, and the CC BY-SA and FDL are similar in their provisions, and even this lead to a few people calling Stallman a traitor, so there is basically zero chance of the text of Wikipedia ever being offered under radically different licensing terms, even if Wikimedia want to.

I wanna post something on Wikipedia or Commons, what am I signing away?

Depends on what licence it’s under, but in general, you are irrevocably giving permission for anyone (your neighbour, your grandma, Donald Trump, PepsiCo…) to use and share it (with or without editing it) for any purpose, including commercial purposes. This may require that it be properly attributed (with a link to the page for Wikipedia, or with your username for Commons), and it may require that modified versions remain under the same licence.

You may well be fine for this for educational resources done as a labour of love, but you probably don’t wanna post your family photos.

Conversely, you can do the same with existing content on there, at least in theory. (Though it is worth noting that under e.g. the Facebook ToS, the rights granted to Facebook itself may exceed those granted by the licence, hence it potentially might not be allowed to upload it to e.g. Facebook. How much the creators of the individual images care varies, but some apparently do care significantly.)

Does everything on Wikipedia have to be free content? What about fair use?

In general, with a few very limited exceptions.

Short quotations can generally be included in text. English Wikipedia follows United States law, due to both where it is hosted and where it is predominantly read, so anything considered fair use under US law can in theory be included.

This is strictly limited by policy to what cannot be conceivably replaced with free content, however, such as album covers or movie posters. Photographs of people, diagrams etc generally do not fall under this. Furthermore, it’s a local policy (some language Wikipedias permit it, some don’t), such images must be low resolution, they must have a fair use rationale for every article they appear in, and they must be uploaded direct to the language Wikipedia in question. Fair use images must not be posted on Commons, and should in general be kept to a minimum.

I found this on the internet without a copyright notice, is this copyright-free?

No. Modern international copyright law, notably the Berne Convention, ensures that anyone can claim copyright on what they created (unless they assigned it to someöne else, e.g. in an employment contract), even if it was already published without a notice or any sort of registration.

Much older works might not fall under the Berne Convention or may have expired. Commons deems that material must be out of copyright in the United States (where Wikimedia is based) and also in the country of origin before it can be uploaded; when this is the case is a somewhat complicated topic. Similarly, Wikisource hosts only texts out of copyright in the United States, hence the existance of the Canada-based Bibliowiki.

Whereas, the only way something created recently can be non-copyright is if the copyright holder deliberately relinquishes the copyright. The extent to which that is possible depends on the jurisdiction, though CC-Zero is fairly comprehensive.

We can get away with it, the copyright owner won’t notice / won’t mind / would be happy / …, right?

As mentioned, Wikimedia is committed to remaining reüsable content. Material of dubious copyright status is not good enough. Also, if it’s used on Wikipedia, it must (like Wikipedia itself) be content that may be used anywhere, for any purpose (provided attribution, and modifications also remaining under similar terms). Which leads nicely into…

The artist / author / copyright holder gave permission for this to be used on Wikipedia, so we can use it, right?

Wellll, sort of.

Because Wikipedia is supposed to be content that may be used anywhere, for any purpose, under the already-mentioned conditions, giving permission for it to be used only on Wikipedia isn’t seen as good enough. More detail on what has to happen.