Thursday, February 25, 2010

Wikipedia, copyright, free software, and the search for one simple photo

Although I was very late to the blogging game, on occasion, I am ahead of the curve.  I was a fairly early adopter of Facebook (due to being at the right college during the right years), and I was a bit early to the explosion in popularity Wikipedia has experienced (due to being someone who likes to read and write factual information far too much).  Wikipedia has made me have to learn more about copyright law than I ever wished to know.

This is going to be a long and rambling post, so here's your jump point.

Wikipedia, as I'm sure I have to tell no one, is "The Free Encyclopedia that anyone can edit."  All material that is uploaded to Wikipedia is done so under what is referred to as a free and viral license.  What does this mean?  Well, here's an overlap with my career in Software.  There are two types of Free in the English Language.  "Free" as in Speech or Liberty, and "Free" as in Beer.  Wikipedia is both.  The second is easy:  You don't have to pay for it.  The first is more complex and subtle.  It means that you are allowed to adopt, change, and reproduce Wikipedia content.  Additionally, Wikipedia is uncensored.  That is, within reason...there must be policies against violation of laws such as child pornography, and there are admins making sure the content is appropriate of an encyclopedia.  The policies on exactly what makes the cut are complex.  The second part, Virality, is also interesting.  A viral license means that anything that does in any way incorporate Wikipedia content must also be in speech (not necessarily beer!).

So, if it's free as in speech and as in beer, does that mean it's completely without copyright?  No.  Public Domain  is entirely different.  What Wikipedia uses is often referred to as Copyleft.  That is, a copyright designed and enforced to keep the content Free.

Free Software

What does this have to do with software?  For the longest time, Wikipedia was under a copyright license that was designed for software:  The GNU Public License, or GPL.  GNU, to any software or math geeks out there who somehow don't know GNU, stands for GNU's Not UNIX.  "GNU" expands infinitely to "GNU's Not UNIX" - it's an endlessly recursive definition.  If you want to read the gory details of the most current version of the GPL, it's here:  The GNU Manifesto, that is, the UNIX-compatible operating system project that is responsible for GPL, is here:  Note the original manifesto also talks about the Beer sort of Free.

Software that is Free as in Speech, must be, by definition, Open Source.  What does that mean?  If you wanted to modify a piece of software, or study it, you must have access to the code that defines how that software works.  From there, the virality of the GPL kicks in.  I cannot take a piece of free software, modify it, and then keep the source hidden when I redistribute my "new" program.  That would be a violation of copyright, and yes the Free Software Foundation can come after you!  There are licenses that allow incorporation of Open Source software without virality, for example, the Lesser GPL or the Apache Software License.  But, as for GPL (I'm trying to get back to Wikipedia here)... if a company that does not write Free Software, for example, Microsoft, uses a piece of GPL'ed code - they just violated copyright unless they open up the piece of software it's incorporated in as Open Source and allow modification, redistribution, etc.  Yes, MS has ended up in this situation.  As it's a violation of copyright, yet they maintain their own copyright, accidentally using GPL code doesn't revoke copyright, allowing anyone to just steal Microsoft's code.  However, MS will back out the GPL code and use something else, as they don't want to be giving away their source code.  Otherwise, Windows would no longer be proprietary, and it would become hard to charge for.

So, how does one charge for "Free" software?  Ask Red Hat, a Linux Operating System company with a large office in Westford.  Linux is an operating system under the GPL, and there are many totally free (such as Red Hat's Fedora or Ubuntu) and commercial (such as Red Hat's Enterprise Linux) distributions out there - all carrying the same viral license.  RedHat used to also be Free as in Beer, but support was at cost.  Today, it appears that Red Hat Enterprise Linux must be purchased along with support (although the source is still available and is the basis for say, CentOS [with Red Hat's trademarks removed]), whereas Fedora is totally free.  One may also write "Free" software for a customer, and charge them for the program...provided they also give them the source code.  For a large, highly specialized software system, this might make perfect sense.


But, now I'm totally off on a tangent so back to Wikipedia.  Yes...Wikipedia used to be under GPL, but today it is under a Creative Commons license called Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike.  I believe the difference from GPL is primarily that of Attribution, meaning that all those websites out there that are ad-supported clones of Wikipedia must point back to Wikipedia now, when they didn't used to have that restriction.  I can also think of one local community - that shall remain nameless - who is in violation of Wikipedia's copyright as they plagiarized a Wikipedia article that I helped write.  However, part of that article  (not the part I worked on!) looks like it was from a government source that likely not in the public domain...making that a copyright violation as well.  This stuff gets messy.

So...all of this means that work contributed to Wikipedia cannot be prevented from being copied, editied, charged for, etc.  Wikipedia also does not pay its editors nor charge for content.  The whole thing is one large community experiment, and so far it's more or less seemed to work.  We've all created a pretty competent encyclopedia, built by a community that writes its own rules with little oversight.  By the way, Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, is a libertarian.  It's nice to see someone who believes that in the absence of many government controls in a world where the market rules supreme, something so useful and unregulated, that virtually nobody gets paid to be involved with, can exist.  Reminds me of the Ayn Rand inspired Canadian rock band Rush's classic song "Closer to the Heart."  Man - sometimes - does the right thing outside of profit motive and without authority breathing down his neck.

There have been some strange results.  Wikipedia is obsessed with its verifiability - which is different than factuality.  If you can't cite a reliable, third-party source, the article is no good.  Note the History of Lowell, Massachusetts article (which I was the main contributor to).  It's badly under-cited, questioning it's validity...even though the article was written from four or five well-respected books.  After all, who am I to speak on these topics?  I'm no historian, or journalist - I'm a software engineer!  I can't be trusted with such things.  Interestingly, there is at least one story out there about taking an incorrect "fact" from Wikipedia, and printing it.  All of a sudden, this "fact" is verifiable by a reliable third-party source, and therefore as true as it needs to be for Wikipedia inclusion.  Scary.  Additionally, the self-built bureaucracy and the increasingly complex rules and "page owners" on Wikipedia are becoming a barrier to new users, and is frustrating older ones, who don't have the right e-friends there.  See this graph for the rate at which active editors are supposedly decreasing.

And That One Picture

So - the motivation for all of this text is all tangential to the Varnum Building.  I did tag this post "Lowell" after all.  I, because I simply want to to help out, want to improve the article on the Varnum Building.  Where can I get a photo of it before the fire?  The complex Copyleft regulations on providing content to Wikipedia, coupled with Wikipedia's abundance of caution on not getting themselves sued for violating other's copyrights, has made it nearly impossible for me to find a photo of the Varnum Building online that I can use.  The one the city has likely belongs to a third party who allowed the National Park Service to use under fair use - which they are defining as non-commercial...incompatible with Wikipedia licenses but fine for Lowell's website.  If the city is the holder of copyright, they told me I can't grant it for anything but non-commercial use.  Like I said, can't do (although another Lowell website, which like the town shall also remain nameless, is using it somewhat commercially - probably not fair use).  I have a letter out to Chris Natale at - hopefully he's willing and able to provide me a photo.  He's probably pretty busy right now.  And that's about all that's out there.  So, if you read all my ranting here, and want to give up a photo for the article under the rules Wikipedia enforces, please send it to me!

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