Crowdsourcing/Free content and open processes/Intellectual property

By default, full copyright applies to new creative works: there is very little that the end user can do in terms of copying or altering them without permission from the owner. Creative Commons licences give a spectrum of different options in which the copyright owner still legally owns the material, but retains more or fewer rights in it, giving advance permission for copies, remixes and derivative works.

The copyright status of the material sets the balance of power between the hosting organisation and the contributors. Hosting organisations might be tempted to use copyright to keep a high degree of control over their content, if not with full copyright then reserving exclusive rights to commercial exploitation. This might seem a desirable move, but it has further effects.

If someone is asked to work in their spare time for the commercial benefit of an organisation, that is less compelling than working in their spare time for the cause of free global education or the advance of knowledge. As well as being a more noble goal, the latter option gives the contributor an assurance they are going to be able to keep and use what they have worked on.

There is a point in this spectrum of rights which defines what are known as free cultural works: text, media, or other works that anyone can use for any purpose, including adapting for their own use and distributing the adapted versions. This mirrors how the word “free” is used in the free software movement. All the contents of the Wikimedia sites (with small exceptions) are free cultural works by this definition.

If Wikipedia were fully copyrighted, improvement of articles would be impossible. Editing and translation of an article creates derivative works in the terms of copyright law. If that required permission of the previous authors, there would be no quick editing.

Printed books created from Wikipedia content

If the licence were for noncommercial use only, some intended forms of distribution would not be possible, including distribution on a cost-recovery basis. The Wikimedia Foundation have a relationship with a for-profit print-on-demand publisher, PediaPress, which allows users to compile articles into books and to access these or community-created books digitally or in hard copy. This is already being used in universities to create tailored reference works for courses.[1] This would not be a viable tool if PediaPress’s printing and selling of a book awaited permission of the Wikipedia contributors.

The choice faced by Wikipedia is not between more or less control of its content. In practice, the choice has been full control of nothing versus hosting and curation of the largest encyclopedia ever written.

The ShareAlike (SA) clause in the default Wikipedia licence stipulates that any derivative work must be given the same licence as the original. Whereas the attribution clause prevents others from taking your work and presenting it as their own, the SA clause prevents others from taking your work, adapting it, and giving the adapted version a more restrictive licence that restricts commercial exploitation to themselves. This, then, is another way to reassure contributors that they are working for a public commons, not private commercial benefit.

The content, policies, digital media and underlying software of Wikimedia projects are freely and openly available. It is technically possible to take them lock, stock and barrel (without private data like user logins) to another hosting organisation. This possibility gives the hosting organisation an incentive to respect the wishes of contributors, which in turn gives people the confidence to contribute. The same applies to Open Source software projects which build up large communities of contributors. Those contributors know that if they are unhappy with the project’s direction they can take an earlier version of the software and build from that (known as “forking”).

That an entire project can fork is not just a theoretical possibility. The crowdsourced travel guide Wikitravel was hosted by the commercial company Internet Brands, until in 2012 the contributors, complaining of insufficient updates and excessive advertising, forked the site to make WikiVoyage, which is hosted by the Wikimedia Foundation. This is a rare event but it illustrates how free cultural works maintain the balance of power between host and contributors. It also illustrates that it is the good will of the community, not rights in the content, that keeps the project viable.[2]

Where social media sites ask for exclusive commercial rights, contributors have to question whether the service they get from the site is unique and valuable enough to justify giving up some of their rights to their own content. In 2012 the photo sharing site Instagram retracted proposed new legal terms after a backlash from users. The new terms would have given the site a permanent exclusive licence to sell or licence users’ photos.

Wikimedia’s status as a charity without commercial influences is one factor in getting contributions from the public, but it is not a necessary factor. There are commercial entities using wikis and Creative Commons-licensed content to crowdsource reference sites, some of which use the free MediaWiki software that underlies Wikimedia. WikiHow develops tutorials, Wikia hosts thousands of how-to sites and fan sites, and Internet Brands’ original hosting of Wikitravel is another example.


  1. Wane, P. (2012) ‘Wikipedia Book Creator’, EduWiki 2012. University of Leicester, Leicester, 5-6 September. Accessed: 17 February 2014.
  2. Benkler, Y. (2011) ‘Peer Production and Cooperation’, in Bauer, J.M., Latzer, M. (eds.) Handbook on the Economics of the Internet. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing.
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